Church leaders who met with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan Monday (May 24) said they are convinced that international involvement is Iraq’s only chance for lasting peace and security and that the United Nations is the organization rightfully to take that role.
“We hope that President Bush will not just repackage the occupation, but that he will welcome significant involvement by the United Nations, giving the U.N. an independent role and not impeding its ability to function,” said the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the New York-based National Council of Churches USA, who led the 11-member international delegation.
“The increasing chaos in Iraq makes clear that the U.S. government needs to change course,” Dr. Edgar said. “We hope President Bush goes public with the Administration’s apparent realization that the peace the United States seeks can only come with genuine international participation.”
The delegation included church leaders from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Europe, and had support from the World Council of Churches, Middle East Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches as it went into the meeting with Secretary General Annan.
Many of the church leaders also have active interfaith relationships. The Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of Syosset, N.Y., Ecumenical Officer for the Orthodox Church in America, is Vice Moderator of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, which is in regular contact with Iraq’s religious communities. “We acknowledge that religion sometimes is part of the problem, he said. “We stress that religion must be part of the solution,” in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
Church leaders in the group had opposed going to war against Iraq, Dr. Edgar acknowledged. “But now, people who were for the war and people who were against the war need to come together to find an alternative way out of the current situation.”
The religious leaders’ 40-minute meeting with the U.N. Secretary General came as President Bush prepared an evening televised address on U.S. Iraq policy, and as the U.N. Security Council was discussing a new resolution defining the role of the United Nations in Iraq following the transfer of sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government on June 30.
“We’ll be watching for indications that the transition to Iraqi sovereignty is genuine and complete,” Dr. Edgar said. “We expect that the resolution will foster the integrity and unity of Iraq, specify who does what in terms of security, and make clear the role of the United Nations. The resolution needs to give the U.N. a clear mandate supported by the international community, including the United States.”
In the meeting, the Rev. Dr. Keith Clements, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, based in Geneva, Switzerland, shared the “deep longing for a multilateral approach that has marked Europe since World War II. It has been frustrating for us that the United Nations has not been allowed to play its role in Iraq. In Europe there is tremendous support for a U.N. role.”
The church leaders discussed with Secretary General Annan how they constructively could contribute to building lasting peace in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. While religion sometimes fosters conflict and intolerance, they agreed, the problem is not with faith but with some of the faithful.
Religious leaders need to emphasize the importance of building a culture of tolerance, and to teach peace, dignity and respect for human rights, they agreed. Furthermore, as faith groups often note, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism are not the world’s only problems, but also poverty, disease and environmental degradation.
In the meeting, the church leaders offered Secretary General Annan a pastoral word. “You are in our prayers,” Dr. Edgar assured the Secretary General. “These are difficult times. We wish you strength and courage at this critical moment when your leadership is most needed.”
The Rev. Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and President of the Lutheran World Federation, in an interview following the meeting, said it is important to recognize that sustained peace means not just the end of violence but also the end of poverty and human suffering. The future of Iraq rests on the willingness of the United States to join with the international community, he said. “Can the United States give up enough economic, military and political control enough to allow for the transition?”
Said the Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Louisville, Ky., “Clearly the United Nations is ready and able to provide leadership in Iraq. This will be good for the United States, Iraq and the world. The churches we represent would greatly welcome the U.N.‘s leadership role.”
Reflected Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Ecumenical Officer for the Armenian Orthodox Church Diocese of America, Washington, D.C., “In the Middle East, we can’t speak about only one country. The Israeli-Palestinian problem must be solved. There won’t be peace otherwise.”
The church leaders pledged to offer educational resources about the United Nations to their members. This is a considerable constituency, they noted: The NCC’s 36 member churches include nearly 45 million adherents in more than 100,000 local congregations nationwide.
The leaders also pledged to talk with their own governments about the importance of multilateral collaboration in Iraq. Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Relations and Peace, New York, said, “We are at a crossroads and it is up to the United States and the United Nations to convert this moment of opportunity into an active plan with international legitimacy to give a chance for lasting peace in Iraq.
“President Bush, in his remarks Monday night, signaled a move toward such a plan,” he said. “We hope the specifics bear out this hope.”
In addition to Aykazian, Clements, Edgar, Kireopoulos, Kirkpatrick, Kishkovsky and Hanson, the delegation included the Rev. Dr. Karen A. Hamilton, General Secretary, Canadian Council of Churches, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; the Rev. Michael E. Livingston, Executive Director, International Council of Community Churches, Frankfort, Ill.; Mr. Paul Renshaw, Coordinator for International Affairs, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, London, England; Mr. James Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church, Washington, DC.