When United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert and other religious leaders visited Iraq just before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, he left knowing that the coming conflict was inevitable.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, flanked by his cabinet, had brusquely made it clear at that time that his visitors needed to go back and talk to their own government, not to Iraq, Talbert said.
But the conversation that Talbert, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist Council of Bishops, and 12 religious leaders had recently with Aziz during a Dec. 29-Jan. 3 trip to Iraq was markedly different, the bishop told United Methodist News Service. The deputy prime minister, who is Christian, spoke alone with the group during a friendly, casual meeting and later prayed with them.
"I don't sense that they are in a non-negotiating stance," Talbert explained, adding that Aziz said the Iraqi government would welcome discussions with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. congressional leaders. "They are in more of a conciliatory mood at this point. They feel they are abiding by the U.N. resolution."
Diplomatic talks, however, were not the main purpose of the post-Christmas delegation to Iraq, led by the Rev. Robert Edgar, a United Methodist pastor and chief executive of the National Council of Churches. Instead, the focus was on measuring the effects of more than a decade of sanctions against Iraq and having an opportunity to connect with Christians in that country. The Rev. Riad Jarjour, chief executive of the Middle East Council of Churches, hosted the delegation.
"We went because we felt we could be a humanitarian inspection team," Edgar said.
Their experiences prompted a statement opposing a rush to war with Iraq and pledges to keep the plight of innocent Iraqis before the U.S. public.
"What we're calling for is restraint," Talbert explained. "What we're hoping for, in the final analysis, is that we will not need to go to war."
The reality of life in Iraq goes beyond its reviled leader, delegation members pointed out. "The images that we have seen on television have been those of Saddam Hussein holding up a rifle," Edgar added. "We wanted to humanize Iraq by focusing on children and the most vulnerable who will be impacted by the war."
The delegation offered no support for what James Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, called the "reprehensible regime" of Saddam Hussein.
But Winkler also noted that the U.N. weapons inspectors had not yet discovered anything to justify a war and added that the existence of the regime was not enough reason "to carry out an invasion of Iraq that is inevitably going to result in the deaths of a whole lot of innocent people."
Through contact with ordinary Iraqis at worship services and through visits to schools and hospitals, the delegation "saw for ourselves the devastating impact of 12 years of sanctions on the people of Iraq."
Delegation members plan to meet with U.S. government leaders as well as permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the impact of the sanctions and a revamping of the United Nations' current "oil for food" program for Iraq.
"At some point, you have to question how much punishment the ordinary people of Iraq deserve," said Winkler, who pointed out that the United Methodist Church officially backs an end to the sanctions.
Along with other religious leaders, Edgar, a former Congressman, has been a vocal opponent to war with Iraq. He said he has been surprised by the number of "middle Americans" questioning the rush to war, especially since "war talk" makes it hard for the average person to learn what is really happening there.
He believes church leaders need to continue educating their members about the fact that "these are real children, real vulnerable people that we're talking about" in Iraq.
Other delegation members represented the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, Presbyterian Church USA and Episcopal Church. # # # *Bloom is United Methodist News Service's New York news director.
By Albert H. Lee