As the United States drew close to launching bombing attacks on Iraq in February, American church leaders across the theological spectrum spoke out in opposition. In a remarkable display of Christian unity, the heads of churches, seminaries, and religious organizations agreed: Saddam Hussein is a real and dangerous threat to peace, but war is not the answer.
In a series of independent letters and statements to the White House, a wide variety of church leaders and bodies sounded the same theme. Together, several of us had agreed to do a press conference and witness on the White House sidewalk on Ash Wednesday. But due to Kofi Annan’s diplomacy, it became a powerful ecumenical statement that never had to happen.
First, we all agreed that Saddam Hussein’s regime is a great danger to his own people, his neighbors in the Middle East region, and potentially to the world because of his possible possession of weapons of mass destruction. Virtually all the religious voices insisted on Iraq’s compliance with U.N. resolutions and weapons inspections.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chair of the International Policy Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference, wrote, "Because the Iraqi government has repeatedly attacked its neighbors and repressed segments of its own population, its possession of weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to manufacture them properly are of grave concern to the world community." The National Council of Churches added, "We too underscore international multilateral efforts to address Iraq’s non-compliance with U.N. authorization for weapons inspections."
Second, the religious statements all agreed that bombing Iraq would be neither effective nor morally responsible in removing that threat. Such attacks would kill many innocents but not accomplish the goal of eliminating weapons of mass destruction. Bombing the children of Iraq would neither be morally responsible nor politically effective.
Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, and 22 members of his faculty noted, "Bombing can wait, initiatives to save lives can’t." Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the seven active American cardinals wrote, "In our considered judgment, the action by the United States could be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to justify and would seriously jeopardize the possibility of achieving a lasting peace in the region."
All noted that diplomatic efforts had not yet been exhausted, a judgment now proven correct by the agreement reached by the U.N. secretary general. Persistent and patient diplomacy has again shown a better solution than dangerous brinkmanship.
All agreed that the current economic embargo and sanctions against Iraq are causing morally unacceptable suffering and death among the Iraqi people, and must now be substantially modified and refocused to relieve humanitarian concerns and target arms and weapons technology. Many of the church bodies and organizations called for full compliance with weapons inspections by Iraq in exchange for the lifting of sanctions, perhaps linked to a clear timetable.
The executive committee of the World Council of Churches appealed to the U.N. Security Council "to undertake a thorough review of the sanctions regime on Iraq, taking into account their impact on the civilian population, and with a view to defining clear and agreed goals with a specific time frame and benchmarks for the full lifting of sanctions."
Most seem to agree with the board of the Mennonite Central Committee, which has been providing food and medical relief to the Iraqi people, that an expanded and improved U.N. Oil for Food agreement with Iraq, along with other humanitarian aid, is now essential.
As the momentum toward war was building, so was the churches’ opposition. The chorus of thoughtful Christian concern drowned out the few religious voices of support for a U.S. military strike. As President Clinton made his decision about whether to go to war with Iraq, he knew what the religious community thought. The White House was concerned about the planned Ash Wednesday event to be held out front, and had to weigh the cost of proceeding down the road to war without the support of the nation’s religious leaders.
The U.S. Catholic Conference seemed to speak for all of us when it said, "We fear that the use of military force in this case could pose an undue risk to an already suffering civilian population, could well be disproportionate to the ends sought, and could fail to resolve legitimate concerns about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Means short of war must be found to contain and overcome the Iraqi regime’s threat to its own people and the world." Now the religious community must wrestle with the alternatives to war: How do you contain Saddam Hussein without either bombing or starving the kids in his country?