Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Mar. 22, 2003
John Blake and Gayle White – Staff
As the war against Iraq gets under way, the conflict within America’s religious communities is escalating as well.
In churches, mosques and synagogues, people of faith remain divided — even within themselves — about whether the U.S. attack was justified.
“People are both for and against,” said Rabbi Hillel Norry of the Shearith Israel synagogue in Virginia-Highland. “They don’t know what’s the right thing to do.”
Norry said he doesn’t think the war is justified. “I am really torn because I know that he’s [Saddam Hussein] a bad guy and I know there are risks — but I’m not convinced that we’ve done everything in our power to avoid war,” he said. “The government has done itself a disservice by minimizing issues of global security. They say it’s all about Saddam and his weapons of mass destruction, but it can’t be just about that.”
But just across town, Rabbi Shalom Lewis of the Etz Chaim synagogue in Marietta said the war is terrible but necessary. “The definition of a threat needs to be redefined in today’s world,” Lewis said. “A smoking gun results in the death of one and a smoking missile can result in the death of thousands. Where there is a track record of violence coupled with destructive technology, even countries halfway around the world can find themselves imperiled.”
The Southern Baptists hold little ambivalence about the war against Iraq. Leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant body — and the No. 1 denomination in metro Atlanta — have supported the Bush administration’s position on Iraq.
The Rev. Richard Land, head of the denomination’s Nashville-based Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, praised President Bush as demonstrating “courageous leadership.”
In Alpharetta, the Rev. Robert Reccord, president of the North American Mission Board, encouraged fellow Southern Baptists to pray that the war would bring opportunities for both American military personnel and Iraqi citizens to come to faith in Jesus Christ.
But the leader of another Atlanta-based Baptist group, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, expressed frustration and grief that the country had come to war. “The overwhelming sense many people have about this war is sadness and confusion,” the Rev. Daniel Vestal said in a statement after the United States began bombing Baghdad.
“As people who believe in a loving God and as followers of the one who is called the Prince of Peace, we confess our loud lament in the midst of this war and the circumstances that have caused it,” said Vestal, who heads the group created in response to the increasingly conservative leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Imam Plemon El-Amin of the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Decatur said diplomacy was the best method for dealing with Saddam.
“Saddam Hussein is not my favorite person by a long shot, but his ability to threaten his neighbors was basically eliminated in the first war and his ability to threaten us is nonexistent,” El-Amin said.
Across the religious landscape, there was a gulf between what religious leaders and their congregants said about the war.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 71 percent of Americans support the president’s push to war.
“American Christians, while certainly not eager for war, are still largely in support of the president’s policy,” said the Rev. Jim Heidinger, a United Methodist minister and chairman of the Association for Church Renewal, a coalition of evangelicals from the mainline churches.
But press people with questions, and differences emerge — sometimes within denominations.
Bishop Lindsey Davis of the North Georgia United Methodist Conference issued a pastoral letter Thursday condemning Saddam as a “ruthless dictator” who “has held his nation hostage since the 1970s.” But, Davis said, “No one readily embraces war as a solution to disputes among nations.”
Then there are divisions between local pastors and their national leaders.
A new study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life detected a gap between national church leaders and local church pastors on the war. While 57 percent of parishioners said they heard about the war during religious services, most said their pastors have not staked out a position for or against the war.
There are even divisions over the war when it comes to race. Catholics, mainline Protestants and black churchgoers said they had heard sermons mostly opposed to the war. White evangelicals said they had heard sermons mostly supporting the war.
The Pew study said 7 percent of white Protestant clergy spoke out against the war, and 38 percent of black clergy spoke out against the war.
The Catholic Church has been the counterpart to the Southern Baptists. Its opposition to the war has been unwavering.
The nation’s top Catholic bishop said Wednesday the military’s own use of “weapons of mass destruction” against Iraq is “clearly unjustified.” Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the United States bears responsibility for the fate of Iraqi civilians. “The United States and its allies are at war with a regime that has shown, and we fear will continue to show, a disregard for civilian lives and traditional norms governing the use of force,” he said.
Some church leaders took dramatic steps to highlight their opposition to the war.
The leader of the National Council of Churches said he will launch a hunger strike to protest the war. The Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the 36-member communion, said he will abstain from most food for at least the next few days “in sorrow and in tears” for the people of Iraq.
“We’re not asking anyone to fast or hunger-strike until they die,” said Edgar, joined in his appeal by folk singer Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary. “But a little bit of self-sacrifice at this time is appropriate.”
Yet, though most church leaders maintained their opposition to war, they muted their direct criticisms. Many had people in their denominations with spouses or children in the U.S. forces attacking Iraq.
The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops, gathered in North Carolina for a spring retreat, called on parishioners not to “acquiesce to fear” but “witness to the reconciling love of God.” “Christians are called by Jesus to regard all persons as neighbors, to reach out in mercy, and to pray for one another and for our enemies,” the bishops said.
Still, religious leaders who oppose the war remain frustrated that they have not been able to reach out to Bush. Only Cardinal Pio Laghi, on a personal mission from Pope John Paul II, has met with the president to voice opposition to war with Iraq.
The biggest concern from some church leaders is not whether the United States will win the war against Iraq but what will follow afterward.
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said Bush’s invasion of Iraq threatens to isolate the United States from the community of nations, including its allies.
“It risks severing the religious communities that span the globe,” Hanson said from Geneva. “It risks isolating the people of the United States from the rest of the world.”
Religion News Service contributed to this article.
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