Baghdad, IRAQ - A 13-member religious leaders' mission to Iraq heads back to the United States on Jan. 3 after witnessing the 20-year legacy of suffering of Iraqi civilians - especially children - and burdened with the knowledge that war would further deepen that suffering.
Terming preemptive war immoral, illegal and theologically illegitimate, the group contends that a war against Iraq would result in widespread suffering and death for innocent people and would make the U.S. less secure, not more secure.
"Ours is a religious and not a political delegation," emphasized Dr. Bob Edgar at a closing news conference (5:30 p.m. today, Iraq time). "We came as humanitarian inspectors, not weapons inspectors." The group's four-day itinerary included visits to schools, hospitals, churches, mosques and humanitarian aid agencies.
Dr. Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (U.S.A.) and a United Methodist minister, led the delegation, which included other clergy and lay leaders from the United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Episcopal Church and Unitarian Universalist Association along with an Iraq expert from Georgetown University.
The group was hosted by the Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, Middle East Council of Churches General Secretary. It arrived in Baghdad close to midnight Dec. 29 and is to depart early the morning of Jan. 3, landing back in New York City late that afternoon.
"We came to meet with our counterparts in churches and mosques, visit with international aid and UN workers to learn more about the humanitarian situation in Iraq," Dr. Edgar said. "We came to see the faces of the Iraqi people so that the American people can see the faces of children laughing and singing and also hurting and suffering."
While in Iraq, the group went to four houses of worship, including Syrian Orthodox and Chaldean Catholic churches and a mosque. Group members attended a New Year's Eve Mass at a Catholic Church and potluck dinner at a Presbyterian church - "a potluck that would be intimately familiar to American Christians," Dr. Edgar commented.
Group members visited two hospitals, the Red Crescent Society, UNICEF and a school, and visited holy sites and traditional Babylon. "On the street and in informal settings," they said, "we experienced the spontaneous warmth, hospitality and openness of the Iraqi people."
Delegation members brought along dozens of pictures drawn by American children to share with Iraqi children who, in turn, gave the group messages to take back to children in the United States.
"We visited schools and hospitals and saw for ourselves the devastating impact of 12 years of sanctions on the people of Iraq," Dr. Edgar said. "We touched babies suffering illnesses that can be prevented by proper medication currently unavailable to the people of Iraq. We held the cold hands of children in unheated schools with broken windows and underpaid teachers, nurses, and doctors.
"UNICEF officials shared heartbreaking statistics of malnutrition, disease, and hunger with us. We are concerned by the increasing reliance of Iraqi people on the food basket provided through the 'oil for food' program, a program not intended to be the primary source of nutrition or a balanced diet."
The group also met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and asked "pointed questions" about the human rights situation in Iraq, the opportunities for dissent and criticism of the government, and choices made by the government with the resources available to it. "We want to be clear with the American people and the Iraqi government that we do not support authoritarian governments," the group said.
Dr. Edgar said that upon return to the United States, the delegation intends to advocate with the U.S. government for changes in the "oil for food" program that will allow for humanitarian, educational and medical needs to be better met.
The group also stated its conviction that "war is not inevitable and can be averted, even at this moment. President Bush reiterated, on New Year's Eve, his desire to reach a peaceful conclusion to this crisis and we are grateful for his words."
Further details will be released following the group's return to the United States. A list of participants follows: Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of Churches (U.S.A.) and a United Methodist minister; New York City; Dr. Huw Anwyl, Minister, United Church of Christ, Laguna Niguel, Calif.; Rev. Ray Buchanan, President, Stop Hunger Now and United Methodist Minister, Raleigh, N.C.; Rev. John Buehrens, minister former president, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Needham, Mass. Rev. Buehrens also is a special assistant to the secretary general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace; the Rev. Dr. Robert Evans, Executive Director, Plowshares Institute, Presbyterian Pastor, Simsbury, Conn. Also, Robin Hoecker, Legislative Assistant, Unitarian Universalist Association, Washington, D.C.; Dr. Victor Makari, General Assembly staff, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, Ky. Don Mosley, co-founder of Jubilee Partners, Comer, Ga.; Ms. Virginia (Ginger) Paul, Episcopal Church, Executive Committee, Shreveport, La.; Dr. Samer Shehata, Assistant Professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Bishop Melvin Talbert, Ecumenical Officer, The United Methodist Church, Brentwood, Tenn.; James Winkler, General Secretary, General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church, Washington, D.C.; Ms. Amy (Kalee) Kreider, Fenton Communications, Washington, D.C. (media liaison).
By Albert H. Lee