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Crisis in Yugoslavia

NATO Campaign Poses Moral Dilemma for Religious Leaders

Ethics: Demands range from cease-fire to commitment of ground troops for decisive victory.


The escalating conflict over Kosovo is raising a thicket of thorny moral dilemmas and revealing deep ambiguity among U.S. religious leaders over Western military intervention against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Religious leaders have universally condemned Milosevic's brutal campaign of terror against ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, and many have united to call for a truce during the sacred seasons of Easter and Passover. But they are far more ambivalent--and divided--about the morality of the Western response, with demands ranging from an immediate cease-fire to the commitment of ground troops for a decisive military victory.

The Vatican, for instance, has challenged the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia, calling for a cease-fire, and Roman Catholic officials around the nation are questioning whether the conflict over Kosovo meets the criteria of a "just war."

But leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, have vigorously affirmed the justness of the cause, and even urged an all-out military campaign to remove Milosevic from power.

The Jewish community is also divided, with some members privately siding with Yugoslavia's dominant ethnic group, the Serbs, who fought the Nazis during World War II, and others urging full-scale support for the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo to prevent a genocide.

Some ethicists are also troubled by the ramifications of international armed intervention in a civil war, by the widening scope of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's targets and by questions about why Kosovo Albanians merit intervention and not the suppressed peoples of Tibet, East Timor, Afghanistan, Central Africa and other places suffering atrocities.

The very question of whether Western intervention is moral turns on whether individual human rights are regarded as more important than the authority of a ruler, said Barbara McGraw, assistant professor of legal, ethical and social environment at St. Mary's College of California in Moraga. Traditional American values affirm individual rights under God, but for some other countries, "the locus of society's authority is the ruler," and putting down subversive elements to maintain national order is considered acceptable, she said.

"The dilemma is that there is no human being who is a reliable authority on what is ultimately right and ultimately wrong," McGraw added.

The morality of the Kosovo intervention also depends on through whose lens the conflict is viewed. The battle to maintain Kosovo as a part of Yugoslavia has garnered widespread sympathy among Serbs here and abroad, in part because the region is imbued with historical and religious significance of mythic proportions, said Father Petar Jovanovich of the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in San Gabriel.

While Jovanovich said all parties should repent--including Milosevic--he argued that the United States has been using indiscriminate violence since the end of the Cold War, trying to fashion itself into an "imperial force."

"I really don't see how [President Clinton] can say he wants Europe to live in peace when the whole area is being destroyed," Jovanovich said.

To Muslim compatriots of the Kosovo Albanians, however, the moral imperative is to stop a veritable genocide. While many Muslims have opposed the bombings and sanctions visited on Iraq, saying those measures hurt the people more than President Saddam Hussein, they wholeheartedly support the NATO campaign in Kosovo.

"We wish the U.S. would take a policy to get rid of Slobodan Milosevic himself," said Masoud Nassimi of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, a consultative body of 58 organizations.

The council has called for recognition of Kosovo's right to self-determination, a war crimes trial for Milosevic and immediate, increased U.S. aid for rebels and refugees.

Other religious communities have responded in myriad ways, as debate has centered on what is a just war.

That tradition holds that lethal force may be used only as a last resort by legitimate authorities in cases that carry a just cause, a right intention and the probability of success. In addition, the injustices of one party must significantly outweigh those of the other, and the destruction wrought must be outweighed by the good achieved.

The "just war" tradition also imposes moral standards on the conduct of armed conflict, including immunity for noncombatants, the use of no more force than is necessary and the goal of peace with justice, as opposed to vengeance, economic profit or other unacceptable motives.

"Personally, I have difficulty seeing this as a just response," Father Gregory Coiro of the archdiocese of Los Angeles said of the NATO campaign. "If you look strictly at the criteria, and ask what nation has been attacked, it looks like NATO has attacked Yugoslavia. . . . It's very difficult to say who is the aggressor here."

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