Every few weeks, a human-rights group sends Muriel Stackley an alert about reports of a prisoner somewhere being tortured.
When the retired Mennonite minister receives it, she sits down in her apartment at the Cross-Lines Retirement Center in the Argentine district of Kansas City, Kan., and hand-writes a pleading letter to an official in Nepal, Syria or another country.
“Your excellency,” it often begins, “I am writing to respectfully request the release of … ” someone named in the alert.
“My goodness,” Stackley said of the dozens of times she had done this on behalf of Amnesty International, “what a small thing.”
But she’s not alone. Muriel Stackley is one of a growing number of people from faith groups around the country doing something to stop torture. Their opposition to the use of torture is aimed not just at places such as Nepal and Syria but also at Washington.
In fact, a national conference on torture held several weeks ago at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey concluded that “nothing less is at stake in the torture-abuse crisis than the soul of our nation.”
That conference launched what organizers called a National Religious Campaign Against Torture aimed at getting the Bush administration to abandon all torture of prisoners in the war in Iraq and the wider war on terrorism. The gathering was attended by about 200 Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Sikh leaders.
“It is time to raise our voice,” said moral philosophy professor David P. Gushie, “and say an unequivocal no to torture.”
Gushie, who teaches at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., recently outlined in a Christianity Today article five reasons torture is always wrong. It:
Violates the dignity of human beings.
Mistreats the vulnerable.
Places too much trust in government.
Dehumanizes the torturer.
Erodes the character of the nation that does the torturing.
Glen H. Stassen, professor of Christian ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, said, “We need to name torture for what it is — sin.”
John Robb of Pittsburg, Kan., a Presbyterian layman working against torture, said, “We need to make a stand.”
The religious effort to stop torture is advancing on several fronts. Jews, Catholics, Presbyterians, Muslims and others are passing resolutions, signing petitions and trying to educate members of their faith communities about what’s happening and how to stop it.
The Bush administration has been defending itself against allegations that it not only allows but even encourages torture of detainees. Critics also have charged it with sending prisoners to countries known to use torture as a routine policy — in effect, outsourcing torture.
President Bush has declared several times that “we do not torture.” Anti-torture activists were pleased when Bush changed his mind late last year and agreed to support anti-torture legislation sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
But activists said Bush defined torture so narrowly that his statements about not using it were almost meaningless. For instance, the Union of Reform Judaism has reviewed lengthy Justice Department memos prepared for President Bush and concluded that the White House definition of torture means only an act that “results in organ failure or death.”
Conservative Christians, many of whom have been consistent supporters of the president, haven’t said much about the torture issue. Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Association of Evangelicals, said his group “would be categorically opposed to inhumane torture,” but he noted that “there was a real battle of definitions of terms going on here.”
The military has reported conducting hundreds of investigations into allegations of torture and has disciplined more than 250 members of the armed services. Reliable numbers of people allegedly tortured are hard to come by, but last fall, Human Rights First, an advocacy group, estimated that more than 100 detainees have died in U.S. custody since 2002, including at least seven who were tortured to death.
George Hunsinger, a Princeton Seminary professor who organized the January conference at Princeton, said the movement was broad-based.
“There are a lot of religious people who feel a great burden of shame about the Abu Ghraib photographs and the continuing revelations.” (Pictures of American military personnel torturing detainees in 2004 at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq became an international scandal.)
“This is deeply troubling to people,” Hunsinger said. “So what we’re finding with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture is that people really want to be a part of this. They don’t want security purchased at this price.”
Hunsinger hopes to get 100,000 signatures on the anti-torture statement the conference produced and to get many faith communities to use educational material he and others have developed. Jewish and Christian versions of the material are available on the campaign’s Web site.
This religious movement against torture is drawing not just national leaders and organizations but also individuals.
They are adding their voices to longtime activists in this field, such as Sister Dianna Ortiz, director of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition. She was tortured in 1989 in Guatemala, where she was doing missionary work.
John and Carole Robb have joined the fight against torture. In January they drove to Miami from their home in Pittsburg, Kan., for an anti-torture gathering of Presbyterians.
“If the decent people are quiet,” said John Robb, “this is just going to run amok.” He and his wife are members of the peacemaking committee of their regional organization of Presbyterian churches.
“We know it’s (torture) not a new thing, but it should have stopped long ago,” said Carole Robb. “We think that the United States is above things like that.”
The Robbs have been writing to their elected officials and speaking to groups about ways to get the government to abide by international laws on torture.
Even though Muriel Stackley focuses on torture done by countries other than the U.S., she has grown increasingly distressed by reports of Americans using torture.
“In truth,” she said, “this is our national chagrin.”
Most anti-torture activists use this definition of torture from the international Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:
“ … the term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession … when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
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