From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Episcopalians: Chicago religious leaders ask President Bush to give peace a chance

Date Mon, 2 Dec 2002 16:49:37 -0500

December 2, 2002


Episcopalians: Chicago religious leaders ask President Bush 
to give peace a chance

by David Skidmore

(ENS) Religious moderates, long overshadowed by their 
conservative counterparts in the debate over Iraq, found their 
way back to center stage at a press conference at the Episcopal 
Church Center in Chicago December 1. In their first joint 
statement on a national political issue, members of the Council 
of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago urged President 
Bush to make war "among the last options our nation might 
elect," and work with other nations to ensure a long-term 
stability in the Middle East and around the world.

In a letter to President Bush drafted Thanksgiving week and 
signed by over 30 of the 47 denominational and faith group 
leaders making up the council, Chicago's religious leaders urged 
the President to continue working with other nations for greater 
security in the Middle East and Persian Gulf "while avoiding, if 
at all possible, a costly, dangerous and destructive war." The 
leaders, acknowledging their past difficulty achieving consensus 
on the 1990-91 Gulf War as well as last year's intervention in 
Afghanistan, were able to find common ground on the issue of 
whether war with Iraq is justified at this time. It is not, they 

While some members believe war can never be justified, and 
others hold that just war is possible under narrow guidelines, 
the council as a whole decided "that in the present situation 
conditions justifying war have not been met," stated the leaders 
in their letter. Noting that "compelling evidence" of an 
imminent Iraqi attack is missing, and that diplomacy has not 
been exhausted, the leaders stressed "that there is ample time 
and latitude for pursuing alternatives that could avert warfare, 
saving untold thousands of lives."

War should be 'absolute last resort'

The United States needs to allow the U.N. inspection teams 
time to do their work, said Bishop William Persell of the 
Episcopal Diocese of Chicago at the press conference. Persell, 
who is president of the Chicago religious leaders council, said 
the U.N. teams should be tough and thorough in their 
inspections, and that member nations should "hold Saddam 
Hussein's feet to the fire and not let him get away with 
anything. We have to really push him to comply with past U.N. 
resolutions on disarmament."

War, said Persell, should remain an "absolute last resort."

That sentiment was shared by Bishop Joseph Sprague of the 
United Methodist Church's Northern Illinois Conference. "It is 
impossible to think about war with anything other than a heart 
of sadness," he said. "War has to be the very last option if 
there is to be any kind of human dignity and decency."

Several of the leaders present for the press conference hoped 
the letter would be a signal for a broad-based public debate on 
U.S. policy in the Middle East, a debate that has been nearly 
monopolized by religious conservatives, they said.

"There is always a reluctance to do this," said the Rev. Paul 
Rutgers, executive director of the Chicago Presbytery and the 
council's executive director. "We feel that as well. But 
hopefully this will be part of a democratic process that will 
have people open up and express their feelings."

Sprague said that on visits to Washington D.C. senators have 
been  asking him why the progressive voice of religion has been 
haphazard in its engagement of public policy issues, allowing 
the Christian Coalition to monopolize the headlines. By drafting 
this letter, the council now has an answer, he said.

"Today that voice is being articulated and I do believe that 
they want to hear it because it is representing them in the 
grassroots of this nation," said Sprague.

Letter is first for council

Given the council's diversity -- a religious mosaic of Catholic, 
Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish and Islamic faith groups -- forging 
solidarity was no mean feat. Rutgers noted that this is the 
first time the council has taken a public stand on national 
political issues, a watershed event in its fifteen-year history. 
Organized by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin of the Catholic 
Archdiocese of Chicago to address the city's racial tension, the 
Council of Religious Leaders meets monthly to discuss social 
issues affecting local communities and faith groups. In a rare 
public statement, the council last spring called for more 
stringent safeguards to prevent clergy sexual misconduct.

Though council members had talked informally with each other 
about a response to the rising tensions with Iraq earlier this 
year, efforts to draft a statement didn't get underway until an 
October dinner hosted by Persell and his wife Nancy at their 
home. Those conversations continued through email exchanges, 
culminating in a day-long retreat November 26 where the leaders 
composed a letter to President Bush. For Bishop Timothy Lyne, 
auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the galvanizing 
force has been the rapport and trust shared among the leaders.

"We have different ways of thinking about many things, but 
the men and women who are part of this organization have a 
unique ability to talk to each other honestly because we trust 
each other," he said. 

Given the diversity of organizations on the council -- 
besides most mainstream Protestant and Catholic denominations, 
members include the Chicago Board of Rabbis, the Council of 
Islamic Organizations, several Baptist conventions, the 
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, the Salvation Army, and the 
Unitarian Church -- the letter should catch the eye, and perhaps 
the heart, of the nation's leaders, said Rabbi Ira Youdovin of 
the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

"This demonstrates that opposition to a war at this time 
transcends denominational boundaries. It transcends ideological 
boundaries," said Youdovin. "It unites people who may disagree 
on many things, but we agree that this is an important issue and 
something that our country dare not do at this time."

Later this week, after other religious leaders have had a 
chance to read the letter and add their names to it, the letter 
will be mailed to the White House.


David Skidmore is director of communications for the Episcopal 
Diocese of Chicago. The text of the letter is available on the 
diocesan web site at

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