National religious leaders are bringing a strong message against war on Iraq to their congregations across the country. “We are taking our message to ‘middle church’ – middle America at church,” the Rev. Robert Edgar, National Council of Churches (NCC) general secretary, told the World.

The anti-war activity of religious leaders today is unprecedented, Edgar said. Mainline Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers are not buying the Bush administration’s attempts to justify war on Iraq, he noted.

Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church USA, Bishop Melvin Talbert, Ecumenical Officer, Council of United Methodist Bishops, and other religious leaders were part of an NCC delegation that met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Feb. 18, to convey a message of widespread opposition to war with Iraq. They told Blair, “American church bodies have never before in their history been more united in their opposition to a war.” The trip was one of five ecumenical peace delegations to key European capitals organized by the NCC.

The Americans were joined in London by their international counterparts, including Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town; Bishop Clive Handford, Episcopal Bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf; Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, Episcopal Bishop of Jerusalem, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; and Rev. Dr. Keith Clements, general secretary, Conference of European Churches.

Church leaders say, while they agree that Saddam Hussein’s regime is terrible, they want to remind political leaders that war is terrible too.

The leaders of Britain’s two main Christian churches have united against Blair’s pro-war position. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O’Connor, released a statement Feb. 20 countering Blair’s “moral appeal” to remove Saddam Hussein and warning of the “unpredictable humanitarian and political consequences of war.” They also called on Hussein to comply with UN requirements.

In Paris, U.S. religious leaders met with the French Foreign Ministry Feb. 11. “We are here representing the official position of the National Council of Churches – with 50 million members in 36 denominations – and the Roman Catholic Church, with nearly 64 million U.S. members,” said the Rev. Michael Livingston, executive director of the International Council of Community Churches, an NCC member denomination. “Large portions of the American population don’t support this war.” The delegation also included the Rev. Daniel Weiss, Immediate Past General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches.

A multi-faith delegation traveled to Rome Feb. 25-27, and Edgar will be part of a church delegation to Moscow Mar. 3-5, which is to include a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pope John Paul II has also spoken out against an Iraq war. He called on Catholics to fast on Ash Wednesday in the name of peace, and said Feb. 23 he worried a U.S.-led war against Iraq could unsettle the entire Middle East.

“It is the duty of all believers, to whichever religion they belong, to proclaim that we can never be happy pitted one against the other; the future of humanity will never able to be secured by terrorism and by the logic of war,” he said.

Black clergy from across the U.S. convened in Detroit Feb. 8 for “The State of the Black Union,” where opposition to the war was prominent, with many leaders saying President Bush is wrong and “war is not the answer.”

“We’ve spoken out clearly opposing the war,” said Dr. William Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA.

“The depth and texture of religious voices speaking out against war is quite astonishing,” NCC Media Liaison Carol Foukes told the World. She noted that 49 U.S. religious leaders sent a letter to Bush Jan. 30 asking for an urgent meeting with him to “slow the rush to war.” The letter was signed by leaders of 11 denominations and four organizations, including 20 bishops of the United Methodist Church – Bush’s church. To date they have received no response.

The religious community’s concern is not just this war, Edgar told the World. This movement is opposing “a new U.S. foreign policy that looks like imperialism,” he said. There is deep concern over the administration’s rejection of international agreements such as those on the environment and land mines, its stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons, its role in proliferation of conventional weapons, and its new first-strike policy.

On March 2, a “Poverty March for Peace” in San Francisco, initiated by the NCC, will focus on the neglect of American domestic programs during the “rush to war,” and the resulting diversion of attention to the rising economic threats to American national security.

Edgar is a co-chair of the Win Without War coalition. Other national faith-based groups that are part of Win Without War include: American Friends Service Committee, Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, NETWORK A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, Pax Christi USA, Sojourners, The Tikkun Community, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.

The author can be reached at Terrie Albano contributed to this article.


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.