Educating for action

Ecumenical Advocacy Days participants urge end to torture, spotlight child poverty
May 2, 2007

"We know that the United States has tortured to death 30 people -- these we've documented. There are probably hundreds more."

Linda Gustitus, chair of the Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), wanted her audience at Ecumenical Advocacy Days to recoil from such a reality. She had some hard facts to present at the event that drew more than 1,000 Christians, Muslims and Jews to Washington, D.C., in March. She wanted them to speak up, to just say "No." She gave them ammunition.

"We know that the United States operates numerous secret prisons around the world. There is only one reason to operate secret prisons and that is to torture people."

"These are deeply disappointing facts," she said, "but they are real. There are 400 detainees at Quantanamo. Some of them are being tortured. Many have been held for five years without a trial."

Gustitus was one of dozens of speakers who educated and armed would-be lobbyists from the religious community during four days of workshops and trainings. Ecumenical Advocacy Days, sponsored by the National Council of Churches and more than 50 faith-based organizations, is in its fifth year. The Episcopal Church has been a major sponsor since the beginning.

The theme this year, "And How Are the Children?", aimed a spotlight at ending child poverty. Speakers addressed domestic and global issues: unaccompanied children crossing the border, fixing the No Child Left Behind program, effects of the Middle East conflict on the region's children; the impact of U.S. security policies on children; effects of debt on Africa's children; escalating violence in Burma and the Philippines and a dozen more.

Effects on children
The workshop on ending torture had some particularly ugly news to reveal about the effects on children.

Catherine Arrowood, Washington representative of Center for Victims of Torture, an organization that operates 30 treatment centers around the U.S., described what torture can do to families. "Psychological torture is the most damaging ... It is the source of nightmares 15 and 20 years later ... Even the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren, of these survivors have higher rates of suicide," she said.

"The real purpose of torture is to shape cultures through fear. Torture is used to destroy leaders and send fear through that leader's family and community of followers," she said. "Torture is a political weapon that is used purposefully and systematically."

For intelligence gathering, it is counter productive, she insisted. It induces victims to tell their interrogators whatever they want to hear. "Nearly every victim, when subjected to torture, confessed to a crime they did not commit, gave up extraneous information, or supplied names of innocent friends or colleagues to their torturers," said Arrowood.

Yet this is now allowed under U.S. law. According to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, a coalition of approximately 100 organizations, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 gives the president "permission to order the CIA and other government agencies to engage in brutal interrogation techniques and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees."

The NRCAT's goal is simple: "to obtain passage by the United States Congress of legislation that prohibits – without exception – all U.S.-sponsored torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of detainees." Its message is also simple: "Torture is a moral issue."

Both goal and message reflect the thinking of the Episcopal Church's Executive Council. At their March meeting in Portland, Oregon, council members passed a resolution calling on the United States government "to renounce and cease the use of these practices in order to be in compliance with 'The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment." The resolution also called for the US government to "provide just compensation for the victims of torture and their families" and to "support U.S. military and civilian personnel who refuse to obey orders to practice torture or engage in extraordinary rendition."

Last year, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori denounced torture by signing the national denominational and faith group leaders' joint statement which declares: "Torture violates the basic dignity of the human person that all religions, in their highest ideals, hold dear. It degrades everyone involved—policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation's most cherished values. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable. Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word but allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now—without exceptions."

Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights for the United Methodist Church, listed those things individuals and parishes could do to help the anti-torture campaign: sign NRCAT's "Statement of Conscience;" share stories of those who have endured torture; plan meetings with congressional representatives when they are in the home district; make victims of torture a regular prayer concern; build networks with other churches and groups.

To learn more about the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, visit http://www.nrcat.org/.