Episcopalians respond to beginning of war with Iraq

March 25, 2003

(ENS) As the American-led offensive against Iraq began, Episcopalians joined Christians around the world in praying for a quick end to the war and the safe return of troops. In the meantime church doors across the nation are open, candles are lit, and voices raised in earnest petitions for peace.

Writing to Episcopal and Anglican bishops, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said in a statement, "We have entered on a time of acute suffering for some and of anxiety for all peoples and nations round the world." He called for church leaders to pray that "the military action now being undertaken may help to bring about a more stable future for the whole region, with justice for all." He expressed special concern for the Christians of the Middle East that they and their neighbors of other faiths "will find the strength and vision to go on working for a shared future of understanding and respect."

Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold wrote to the church's chaplains, assuring them that he holds them "daily in my prayers." He added, "Quite apart from questions about the wisdom of the course that has been taken by our administration, as your chief pastor, my concern for you wellbeing is resolute and uncompromising. Please know too how deeply I value and respect you for your courage, loyalty and dedication. Yours is a noble service for God which involves mediating the presence of Christ through word, sacrament, and pastoral encounter under the difficult and dangerous circumstances in which you find yourselves."

Williams also urged prayers for "those in the front line of conflict and their families" and the clergy who serve as chaplains, "charged with pastoral responsibility for men and women on active service." In a special letter to military, he said, "You stand in a long and honorable tradition of Christians bearing witness to the love of Christ in hard and dangerous places."

Meanwhile, a joint statement by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), which represents all mainstream Christian churches, and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), said resorting to war reflected the "collective failure" of both faith communities.

"In this time of crisis and deep disappointment, it is vitally important that, despite the occasional unhappy use of 'crusade' language by some American political leaders, none should see the conflict as one between faiths," the statement continued.

Defeat for humanity

"What we feared and labored to avert has happened," said the 20 senior leaders of Middle East churches--including Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal of the Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East--in a statement released March 21 by the Middle East Council of Churches. They pledged to continue their efforts to limit the expansion of the war, "spare innocent civilians, and bring to a halt as quickly as possible." They also called for international aid to help the victims of the conflict.

Riah said he fears that the outbreak of war in Iraq could have a devastating effect on the Christian presence in the Middle East. "We had the Gulf War in the 1990s which caused many Iraqi Christians to leave or emigrate and now. God forbid, with another war in Iraq, we will put an end to Christian presence throughout the Middle East," he explained.

He said that many Muslims believed that the latest conflict was, in fact, a modern day equivalent of the Christian Crusades that "caused a lot of harm to Christian presence in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East." He said that many in the region see the war as one "where Islam is targeted, where Muslims are targeted."

World Council of Churches General Secretary Konrad Raiser said that the attack is "immoral, illegal and ill-advised," arguing that the war "will only confirm and aggravate stereotypes and, in many parts of the world, add to an image of the West marked by colonialism and crusades."

Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem and Jordan warned, "It is clear that this war in Iraq is going to fan the flames of hatred and extremism around the world. We urge you to pray for our broken humanity." He added, "My heart is bleeding when I see the work of war destroying the image of God in human beings. Every drop of blood is too precious to be spilled and wasted." Echoing the words of Pope John Paul II, he said that "war is a defeat for humanity."

"In the midst of these horrific events, our prayers are with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East," said a statement from Churches for Middle East Peace, an ecumenical coalition working for peace in the region. "We pray that the leaders of our nation and the nations of the world will have compassion and wisdom."

Fear and division

"We are deeply concerned that this should not be seen as a conflict between Christians and Muslims," said Bishop Clive Handford, Anglican bishop of Cyprus and the Gulf and president of the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. He pledged himself to support efforts "to do all in our power to combat the forces which would seek to polarize our faiths," and said that resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a crucial component in the search for peace in the region.

Other international leaders also responded. "War happens when dialogue, talks and human dealing fails," said Anglican Archbishop Robin Eames of Ireland. "It marks the failure of humanity to succeed in reaching agreement by other means. History has taught us that lesson in Ireland."

"The advent of war has brought fear and division into our community," said Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney, Australia. "It is right to remember that the government is God's agent set over us for our good and that our military personnel are obeying the lawful authorities."

"I ask for your prayer for an anxious world, uncertain as to what has been unleashed, frightened by its possible consequences, and at risk in ways that we do not yet know," said Archbishop Michael Peers, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. "As we journey in Lent towards the place where the power of death and the power of life face one another on the cross, may we have grace to trust the One whose voice speaks our name on the day of Resurrection."

'The rush to war'

Leaders of the National Council of Churches said they were praying "for the men and women of the armed forces of both sides, facing grave dangers in a mission not of their making".

"We who have worked so hard to avert a pre-emptive war against Iraq mourn for all the lives now threatened by the failure of their leaders to find alternatives to war," said General Secretary Bob Edgar, and Elenie Huszagh, the president of the NCC, in a joint statement issued after US President George W. Bush announced that military strikes had begun.

In recent months, Edgar has been among the foremost critics of a "rush to war" against Iraq, and, with other US Christian leaders also critical of military intervention. In a message to churches, Edgar called on congregations to keep their sanctuary doors open to all who wished to enter for prayer, to keep a candle burning for peace on every altar and to "reach out" to Muslims.

Christians are also responding with compassion to the humanitarian crisis provoked by the war. Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD) has partnered with the Middle East Council of Churches to provide critical assistance to those seeking shelter, food and other essentials and helping through the MECC to stock relief distribution centers for those Iraqis displaced by the war. Church World Service (CWS), the relief and development agency of the NCC, announced its intention to accelerate its long-standing relief services to the people of Iraq while voicing concerns over the humanitarian toll of the war.

"This is not a moment for triumphalism, but for humility and repentance," said the CWS board in a statement. "The people of Iraq must be given hope that there are alternatives to both dictatorship and war."

In Rome, where Pope John Paul II has made repeated calls for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis, the pontiff dedicated a dawn Mass in his private chapel to peace.

In a statement, the Vatican said on Thursday that it "deplored" Iraq's failure to accept UN resolutions and "regretted" that negotiations to find a peaceful solution to the crisis had been interrupted.

Earlier this week the Vatican had warned that "whoever decides that all the peaceful means made available under international law are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his conscience and history."

Resources for parishes

Across the Episcopal Church, local parishes addressed the fear and anxiety through special services and open discussions in the search for peace.

In a service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City the day the bombs started to fall in Iraq, Bishop Mark Sisk urged the congregation to "pray for protection against war's greatest threat--its attack on our souls. Let us pray always that our hearts not be hardened, that they not be hardened against the distant enemy or the stranger in our midst. Let us pray that we not become inured to the price that others pay on our behalf--or to the price that we are asked to pay in liberty for liberty."

In a vesper service that drew over a thousand people, retired New York Bishop Paul Moore returned to the pulpit at the cathedral and warned that the divisions surrounding the war "will lead to a terrible crack in the whole culture we have come to know."

Many dioceses used their Web sites to provide peace resources for parishes. In Chicago, the site includes a wide range of news stories, events, liturgical materials and commentary. Bishop William Persell urged clergy and lay leaders to "provide a non-anxious presence in the midst of people who are fearful, angry, depressed, even despairing" and "stay connected to everyone, those who agree and especially those who disagree with you." A 24-hour vigil was organized by the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the American Friends Service Committee.

The Web site in the Diocese of Southwest Florida included a variety of suggestions--and some ideas on addressing the moral implications of military action, including "A Primer on War--Pacifism and Just War Tradition." The Diocese of Los Angeles offered panel discussions on war and peace in different locations around the diocese. Bishop John Bruno said in a statement, "We need to be ready at the conclusion of this war to rebuild Iraq and make it a place of peace, tranquility and justice. We have an obligation to the innocent for, as Howard Zinn says, 'There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.'"

Many Web sites included the recent pastoral letter from the House of Bishops, written on the eve of the first bombings. In a letter written to his diocese from the meeting, Bishop Herbert Thompson of Southern Ohio called on parishes to make lists of military personnel for prayers and "remember to support the families of those who have been called up for service. Do not let criticism of our nation's military go unchallenged." (Bishops in Oregon and New Jersey made similar suggestions.)

Thompson also urged the parishes "to seek ways to reaffirm our solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Jewish faith and the Muslim faith." In case of emergency, he noted that Bishop George Packard's office has a CD that is being sent to all parishes providing information on "What to do when disaster strikes," as well as other resources on the Web site for the Office of the Bishop Suffragan for Chaplaincies.

For more resources, see these other diocesan web sites:

Central New York



Fort Worth






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Western New York


--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service.

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