(ENS) A 13-member delegation of church leaders returned from a four-day humanitarian visit to Iraq at the end of 2002 with a warning that a war would make the United States less secure and result in widespread suffering and death for many innocent people. The delegation was formed in response to an invitation from the Middle East Council of Churches and was led by the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches.
"We believe the entire region, including Israel and the United States, will be at greater risk of terrorism if war takes place," the delegation said in a January 3 statement "Sowing the Seeds of Peace." The statement also argues that "a preemptive war would be immoral, illegal and theologically illegitimate and profoundly violates our Christian beliefs and religious principles." Participants pledged to meet with leaders of Congress and the Bush Administration, as well as United Nations Security Council members, to support humanitarian aid for Iraqi citizens, especially children.
"Ours is a religious and not a political delegation," the statement said. "We came to see the faces of the Iraqi people so that the American people can see the faces of children laughing and singing and also hurting and suffering….We are called by God to be peacemakers. War is not inevitable and can be averted, even at this moment."
The delegation visited schools and hospitals and "saw for ourselves the devastating impact of 12 years of sanctions on the people of Iraq. We touched babies suffering illnesses that can be prevented by proper medication currently unavailable to the people of Iraq," the statement reported. United Nations officials "shared heartbreaking stories of malnutrition, disease and hunger with us."
The delegation prayed with Christians and Muslims in the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Only three or four percent of Iraqis are Christian.
"On the street and in informal settings we experienced the spontaneous warmth, hospitality and openness of the Iraqi people," the statement said, concluding with an admonition offered by the Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church: "Together we must sow the seeds of peace and let God water and nurture the seeds."
The delegation also met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and asked "pointed questions" about the human rights situation in Iraq, the opportunities for dissent and criticism of the government, and choices made by the government with the resources available to it, making it clear that "we do not support authoritarian governments." Aziz is a Chaldean Catholic Christian who, according to local church leaders, attends church several times a year. His wife is a very devout and active member of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
The threat of war
Ginger Paul of Louisiana, who represents the Episcopal Church on the executive board of the NCC, said that she and other members of the delegation were "appalled at the conditions for children in the hospitals and schools." She said it was clear that the Iraqis blame the situation on the sanctions imposed by the United Nations following Operation Desert Storm, the Gulf War in 1991.
"The possibility of war is on the minds of everyone," Paul reported, "and almost everyone we met pleaded for us to help prevent it. One woman reminded us that they have been at war for over 20 years." A Christian woman told the group that she had lived through the other wars and expected that she would live through another war, expressing a kind of resignation, according to Paul. Iraqis kept asking members of the delegation, "Why is war necessary at this time?" Some said it was for reasons of revenge, oil, support for Israel or a desire of the Americans to exercise control over the region.
During a visit to a hospital for infants and children, "we entered wards with very sick children, some of them dying," Paul added. "But the mothers smiled at us and held out their babies to touch. It was a very profound, non-verbal connection--one that happened everywhere." The group's itinerary was closely monitored and "none of us had any illusions about whether we were going to get a complete picture of the situation," said Paul. "But we did our best in such a short time to put a human face on the issue."
Edgar said that he returned from Iraq "committed more than ever that our churches are right in opposing the war. It just doesn't meet the 'just war' criteria." He is also convinced that the children of Iraq will suffer the most. "They will be the biggest casualties. This war would have far more impact on ordinary civilians than did the Gulf War."
--James Solheim is director of Episcopal News Service. Additional information and photos on the Iraqi visit are available on the NCC web site at http://www.ncccusa.org/.