News Fall 2002

Patriarch Alexis urges USA to cancel Iraq war plans

Patriarch Alexis of Moscow addressed an appeal in September urging the United States not to initiate a war against Iraq.

“We should look for a peaceful but not military settlement of the Iraqi issue. War will only incur more suffering on people,” the patriarch said during a meeting with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek.

Alexis stressed that it was necessary to take every opportunity to find a political solution of the Iraqi issue. The 21st century “must be a century of creation and not the one of destruction and bloodshed.”

Church leaders oppose war with Iraq

Leaders of North American and British churches have urged their governments to halt a “rush to war” with Iraq. They called on their governments to exercise restraint in the face of demands for military action to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. “We call upon our governments to pursue diplomatic means in active cooperation with the United Nations and to stop the apparent rush to war.”

The letter — released in September — was distributed by representatives of Orthodox, Protestant and Anglican churches and ecumenical organizations at a meeting in Geneva of the main governing body of the World Council of Churches.

The letter urges the two governments to work through the UN Security Council and to accept Saddam Hussein’s offer to resume UN weapons inspections.

The letter also condemned “threats to peace” posed by Iraq. The Iraqi government had a “duty to stop its internal repression” and “to abandon its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.”

But the letter stated that no evidence had been made public of an alleged build-up of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This prevented the public from being able to make informed decisions about military action, the letter stated.

It accused the US and UK governments of “depriving the US Congress and the UK Parliament of the ability to make a considered judgement regarding the justification for war.”

The letter also expressed “alarm” about military action by an individual country without support from its allies or other nations, saying that this undermined respect for law.

The church leaders warned that war in Iraq could de-stabilize the region, pointing especially to the potential danger to Christians and other civilians living in the Middle East.

“Our knowledge of and links with church partners in the Middle East … make us very sensitive to the destabilizing potential of a war against Iraq for the whole region,” they said. They cautioned that war would harm Christian-Muslim relations, could result “in a direct military confrontation in Israel and strengthen the forces of extremism and terrorism.”

Orthodox Christians in Britain Urge Blair not to attack Iraq

Participants in an Orthodox retreat held in Dalmally, Scotland, in August, urged Prime Minister Blair not to join in a war against Iraq. The signers included Bishop Kallistos Ware, Orthodox scholar and author as well as member of the advisory board of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

“We, the undersigned members of the Orthodox Church in Britain, wish to add our support to the many pleas being made to you not to initiate war with Iraq. We hold no brief with Saddam Hussein. Indeed, it is clear that he has been responsible for the suffering of many people both in his own country and beyond. However, we believe there is no legal or moral basis to launch a war against another country simply on the grounds that it possesses weapons of mass destruction which might at some time in the future be used against us or our allies.

“If there is compelling evidence that, despite the testimony of former members of the UN inspection team, that Iraq is equipped and poised to use weapons of mass destruction, this evidence must be made public. Yet even were such evidence produced, it would not justify pre-emptive attack, such as Japan carried out against the United States in 1941.

“We are hopeful that the presence of UN weapon inspectors will be renewed in Iraq and that military sanctions can remain in place, though not a form of sanctions which has the effect of hugely increasing the mortality rate for the most vulnerable members of society: the children, the aged and the ill. It is estimated that more than half a million children have died in the past decade. According to Denis Halliday, former UN Assistant Secretary General and Humanitarian Aid Co-ordinator for Iraq, ‘We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.’ Halliday resigned in October 1998 in protest against the effect of sanctions as now applied.

“Eradicating the dangers posed by dictators and terrorists can be achieved only by tackling the root causes of the disputes themselves. Clearly one of the most pressing issues is the plight of the Palestinian people which fuels deepening animosity toward the allies of Israel while threatening the stability of several states in the Middle East. We appeal to you to do all in your power to end Israeli occupation and support the creation of a free and independent Palestine within secure borders so that Israelis and Palestinians will no longer be a danger to each other and their dispute no longer threaten world peace.

“We would agree with the recent letter signed by many senior clergy in Britain that it would be appropriate if those countries calling for the return of inspectors to Iraq were to open their own nuclear, chemical and bacteriological facilities to the same process of international inspection. Such an undertaking would demonstrate that we are willing to apply to ourselves the same standards we seek to apply to Iraq.

“An unprovoked attack on Iraq would bring shame on those countries who were a party to such an action. While Christ’s teaching that ‘all who draw the sword will die by the sword’ can be understood in a variety of ways, clearly it is no blessing to those who would initiate war.”

WCC sends people to accompany those vulnerable in Palestine, Israel

Ten European Christians arrived in Israel and Palestine in August to “accompany” religious leaders, social and other service workers and peace activists who have been threatened with violence in the region.

The 10 — from Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway — are the initial participants in the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel, approved late last year by the WCC’s executive committee.

Coordinator Salpy Eskidjian said those in the program will travel with such people as ambulance drivers, medical and mental health workers, local bishops and religious leaders, Israeli peace activists and other social service workers. Ranging in age from 27 to 63, they include medical students, journalists, theologians and community development workers. The first group anticipates staying in Israel and Palestine for three to six months.

Eskidjian emphasized that the accompaniment program is “the way of nonviolence.” Those accompanying, she said, are “providing protection and deterrence for the sake of both Palestinians and Israelis, for Christians and Jews and Muslims.”

The “accompaniers” received training prior to their departure and further training in Jerusalem. Various security precautions and procedures to reduce the dangers involved. Still, Eskidjian acknowledged, the accompaniment mission is risky. “It’s dangerous,” she said, “but too important not to do.”

Israel on tragic path, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi

Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, declared in August that Israel is adopting a stance “incompatible” with the deepest ideals of Judaism, and that the current conflict with the Palestinians is “corrupting” Israeli culture.

“I regard the current situation as nothing less than tragic,” he told The Guardian. “It is forcing Israel into postures that are incompatible in the long run with our deepest ideals.”

He said he was profoundly shocked at the recent reports of smiling Israeli servicemen posing for a photograph with the corpse of a slain Palestinian. “There is no question that this kind of prolonged conflict, together with the absence of hope, generates hatreds and insensitivities that in the long run are corrupting to a culture.”

Malnutrition on the rise among Palestinian children

A study commissioned by the US Agency for International Development is finding that malnutrition among Palestinian children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has increased substantially during the conflict with Israel.

The preliminary findings indicated that 30 percent of children were suffering from chronic malnutrition, and another 21 percent from acute malnutrition. Two years ago, a survey done for the same agency that 7 percent of Palestinian children were chronically malnourished and 2.5 percent were acutely malnourished.

WCC accepts plan to end Protestant-Orthodox tensions

The World Council of Churches has accepted a plan to ease differences over forms of worship and inclusion of women that had threatened a split between Western Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The plan, which grew out of a three-year study by a special commission, lays the basis for “common prayer” and decisions by consensus with the aim of giving greater recognition to Orthodox concerns in the 342-church organization dominated by Protestants.

“I am extremely pleased,” said Dr. Peter Bouteneff of the Orthodox Church in America after the council’s governing Central Committee adopted the commission’s report by an overwhelming show of hands.

Bouteneff said he thought the plan would be a major boost for the ecumenical movement seeking to improve relations among denominations. “This is not an Orthodox manifesto,” Bouteneff said. “This was done in a spirit of compromise.”

The commission said consensus will give more voice to the minority because the emphasis will be on winning their support or at least acceptance. Voting may still be used for issues like budgets and administrative matters. Decisions by consensus “will make it easier for all to participate fully in the discussion of any burning ethical or social issue.”

The plan is to drop the term “ecumenical worship,” which might imply experimental religious services offensive to Orthodox commitment to a traditional liturgy. Instead the council members would join in “common prayer.” Opposition to ecumenical worship had led to an Orthodox boycott of some council services and threats of a complete pullout from the body.

Kosovo: arson attack follows monastery liturgy

Soon after Serbian Orthodox priests and monks left a ruined monastery in south western Kosovo where they had conducted the liturgy in July, two surviving monastery buildings were set on fire by unknown attackers. The liturgy at the site of the demolished Church of the Holy Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian in the monastery at Zociste, south of Orahovac, had been the first held there in the three years since Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo and the monastery was largely destroyed. In mid-May, the site was visited by senior Kosovo officials and international representatives (see KNS 31 May 2002), and was assigned for reconstruction as part of a wider internationally-supported plan to create conditions for the return of expelled Serbs to the area. “Starting a fire in the monastery was a clear message from the local population,” said Fr. Sava Janjic.

The service at Zociste — attended by some 200 local Serbs brought in under escort from the NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR — was held after Bishop Artemije informed KFOR’s Multinational Brigade South that a liturgy would be held at the monastery, a statement from the Serbian Orthodox Raska and Prizren Diocese reported. The service was part of a wider project of visitation and consecration of damaged churches and monasteries in Kosovo during the summer months by monks and priests of the diocese. This project was drawn up after the Kosovo parliament adopted a resolution on freedom of movement for all citizens.

The Liturgy proceeded against a background of cursing and shouting, with various items being thrown at the priests, one of whom was hit on the head by a stone. Another person was injured.

The disruption to the liturgy and the arson attack were condemned as “very disturbing” by Susan Manuel, spokeswoman for UNMIK. “We understand the situation was confusing, but what remains a fact is that fires were set there, following the visit of the Serb clergy, at a sacred site, in an area where strenuous efforts have been made to begin some kind of tolerance.” She said it was “extremely disheartening” that “some people persist in exploiting fears that remain within the population and fueling hatred.”

The monastery of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Zociste was founded in the 14th century, but was closed for many centuries. A brotherhood of seven monks lived there until the NATO intervention in 1999. After KFOR troops were deployed in Kosovo, the monastery was looted, desecrated and torched, and the old church building was leveled to the ground.

OPF letter to senior UN staff in Kosovo

In August the Orthodox Peace Fellowship sent a letter to key UN civilian and military staff in Kosovo urging reconstruction of destroyed centers of worship and greater protection to minorities. Here is the main part of the OPF letter:

“When the war ended, we hoped that at last — given the international community’s helping hand — Kosovo would finally become a multi-cultural community in which all ethnic groups can live without fear of one another. Instead we witness the Serb minority suffering abuse and violence day after day since the war ended. Three years after the arrival of international peacekeeping troops, Orthodox Christians in Kosovo continue to suffer the continuing destruction of places of worship, serious discrimination, and live in mortal danger.

“Our concern with human dignity is not one sided. We also objected when the Kosovo Albanian population suffered unjustly during the era of Milosevic, whose rule was repeatedly condemned and protested by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

“Bishop Artemije, spiritual leader of the Orthodox community within Kosovo, strongly opposed violence from any side and supported international peacekeeping efforts. During the war, monks and nuns in Kosovo, risking their own lives, struggled courageously to save lives of non-Serbian neighbors who were in danger.

“Even so the Church is still targeted by extremists who have desecrated Orthodox cemeteries, burned or bombed monasteries and churches, killed defenseless Serbs, seem to be intent on removing every trace of the ancient Christian culture, and carry on their acts of violence despite the international peacekeeping presence.

“It is a profound disappointment to hopes that an international presence in Kosovo would halt the pattern of ethnic cleansing and assure a peaceful life to all inhabitants of Kosovo, regardless of ethnicity and religion. The opposite reality on the ground is a serious blow to the moral credibility of those democracies who sent troops to Kosovo.

“This is why we appeal to you to renew your efforts to change this tragic reality and assure the all ethnic minorities in Kosovo the same standards of freedom and human rights which Kosovo Albanian citizens enjoy.

“One practical step we recommend is assisting the Serbian Orthodox Church in rebuilding its holy sites. So far not even one of the destroyed churches — there are more than a hundred — has been rebuilt, though mosques that were destroyed have been brought back to life.

“Surely KFOR and UNMIK have both the mandate and capacity to provide a minimum of security to the Church and Serb refugees who want to reconstruct their homes and holy sites? Otherwise Kosovo will gradually become a mono-ethnic society and the way of ‘ethnic cleansing’ will have triumphed.”