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Avoid war, Chicago religious leaders tell Bush

Chicago's top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, who once doubted they could ever reach consensus on military action in Iraq, have drafted a rare joint letter to President Bush urging him to avoid war.
Avoid war, city religious leaders tell Bush

By Julia Lieblich

Tribune religion reporter

Published November 30, 2002

Chicago's top Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders, who once doubted they could ever reach consensus on military action in Iraq, have drafted a rare joint letter to President Bush urging him to avoid war.

The document represents the first time the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago has made a public statement on a national issue since the group formed in 1984. Members did so now, they said, to help the president realize that even "normally conservative and cautious" American religious leaders from the heartland believe war should be a last resort.

"In the present situation conditions justifying war have not been met," said the letter, to be released publicly Sunday at St. James Cathedral. "We still lack compelling evidence that Iraq is planning to launch an attack. . . . We believe that there is ample time and latitude for pursuing alternatives that could avert warfare, saving untold thousands of lives."

Rev. Paul Rutgers, a Presbyterian minister and the council's executive director, said he believes the group's views reflect the "opinion across a broad spectrum of society," including many of the nearly 4 million members of their Chicago churches, synagogues and mosques.

The council's action follows the emergence of a broad-based movement among religious leaders nationwide, including the U.S. Catholic bishops, to speak out against the use of preemptive, unilateral force.

Among the letter's signers are Cardinal Francis George of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, Bishop William Persell of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago, Rabbi Ira Youdovin of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, Metropolitan Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Chicago and Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church.

"The top religious leaders of a major American city," Youdovin said, "will add to the collective weight of American opinion to wage war only as a last resort."

The letter makes clear that although almost all of the 47 council members back the letter, some members remain "convinced that the despotic regime that governs Iraq has offered sufficient grounds for military action against it." But Rutgers said even many leaders who disagree with portions of the letter--or hoped for more forceful additions--were willing to sign in the interest of presenting a unified statement.

Kareem Irfan, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, said Muslims would have preferred that the letter "be much more clear in requiring the American government to forcefully take a stand for justice in foreign policy actions, particularly in its relations to Iraq."

But the letter, he said, "was the strongest statement that we could come up with that would satisfy the diversity of views. What we agreed on does convey the moral and religious authority America carries and the role it has to play in keeping with its position as the superpower of the world. I personally think it is a wonderful coalescing of the faith traditions on an issue of monumental importance to the American religions."

Few strict pacifists serve on the council. Some members supported Desert Storm, and some backed the use of force in Afghanistan.

"In years past, the council has frequently been unable to find consensus on the role of military action as an instrument of peace," the letter said. But in the case of Iraq, the letter continued, the religious leaders are convinced that war can be averted--or resorted to only as a last option.

The council has been discussing a statement on Iraq since last fall. But only last month at a dinner party for 14 Christians, Muslims and Jews did they become convinced their positions were not irreconcilable.

"Some of our members were opposed to all war, period," Rutgers said.

"On the other side were those who felt things had gotten so serious with Iraq that war was an option. In the middle . . . were those who were not able to say war was never an option, but were able to say very strongly that under the present circumstances war wasn't called for."

The letter went through several drafts. The group ultimately omitted sections dealing with the roots of terrorism and economic and social solutions.

At one stage, Rutgers wrote a draft of a letter to the president posing the moral question: Do we really want to go to war?

"Frankly to my surprise and pleasure it got set aside," Rutgers said.

"Members said if we're going to say something, it has to be more than that."

The council did not spell out what diplomatic options the president should exhaust.

"What is the hope of the vast majority of us is that efforts through the United Nations, including the inspection, will at the very least receive support," Rutgers said.

"Whatever actions are taken against Iraq," he said, "we hope they will receive the overwhelming support of the international community. The greatest concern is that the United States should not be acting alone."

Fear of unilateral action, he said, is what spurred religious leaders to write the letter.



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