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Talk of War Against Iraq Divides Religious Leaders

Debate: Arguments focus on concept of a 'just war.' Catholic bishops, among others, oppose a first strike.


As talk of likely war with Iraq continues to dominate public discussion, religious leaders in the United States and Europe are divided over whether an attack on the government of Saddam Hussein would meet the criteria of a "just war."

In the Western tradition, the principles of jus ad bellum, a just war, have evolved over several centuries of theological and philosophical argument based on Roman philosophy and religious teaching as well as international law, traditions of chivalry, and hard lessons learned in battle.

A war can be waged only as a last resort by a legitimate authority, not individuals, the just war doctrine states.

There must be a just cause for the hostility. The intention must be to restore justice and peace, not to seek vengeance.

There must be a reasonable chance of success because deaths and injury in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable. Military force must be proportionate to the good likely to be achieved. Those waging the war must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.

The doctrine has never been universally accepted. Some pacifist religious traditions reject the entire concept. "There is no such thing as a just war, just as there is no just slavery or just racism. War simply is not just," said the Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.

"War is growing to the point of being able to deceive people of faith with a lie, an untruth that you can bless war as being just or that you can call war godly."

But even among the larger number of clerics and theologians who accept the idea in theory, no agreement exists about which wars qualify.

"It's not like a mathematical formula where you chunk in some numbers and get an answer," said Mark Edward DeForrest, an instructor at Gonzaga University who has written on the subject. "It's much more a way of thinking about something than a way that leads you to a conclusive answer in any given situation."

Skeptics argue that clerics base their views of war more on their political beliefs than on their theology. But whether that is so or not, American leaders have often sought the sanction of religious leaders before asking soldiers to go into battle.

During World War II, for example, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," a hit tune born of a chaplain's prayer during the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, underscored religious backing for that war.

In the current situation, religious views so far are widely divergent.

U.S. Catholic bishops, for example, backed President Bush in pursuing war in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. Now they are challenging the "moral legitimacy" of a preemptive war against Iraq.

"We believe Iraq is a different case," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote the president last week. "Given the precedents and risks involved, we find it difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of Sept. 11 or of an imminent attack of a grave nature."

By contrast, Richard Land, a leading voice in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, said "attacking Iraq is permissible, because it meets the criteria for a just war."

Saddam Hussein is a threat to American security, Land added.

"Can anyone doubt that when he has developed nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction he will use them against America and her allies?" he asked.

Land compared Hussein to Adolf Hitler, and warned that a failure to remove him from power now would be comparable to the Allies' failure to oppose Hitler early on.

In Great Britain, which has backed the Bush administration's Iraq policy, bishops of the Church of England disagreed about the justice of a war during a debate in the House of Lords.

Some religious statements about peace appear to be out of touch with the realities of the world, said Bishop Richard Chartres of London.

"Such hyper-moralism lacks practical wisdom," he said. "We are in a situation in which the old doctrines of deterrence have been undermined by the character of modern terrorism."

Though war is "always a failure" and nations must avoid causing suffering to innocents, "in view of the destructiveness of the tools available to modern terrorists and states, the use of preemptive strikes where a well-proven threat exists should not, a priori, be ruled out," he said.

Chartres, added, however, that the United Nations must be involved in deciding which cases really justify war. "No state, however powerful, should be left as judge and jury," he said.

Other bishops opposed the war, some arguing for pacifist principles, others saying the evidence of Iraq's misconduct did not prove that war would be the only feasible policy.

Christians are not alone in their differences. Jewish groups have been struggling with Bush's new military doctrine that allows for preemptive, unilateral war by the United States.

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