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A delegation of U.S. religious leaders who oppose war with Iraq is in Baghdad on a “humanitarian mission of peace” organized by the National Council of Churches.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar arrived with the group Monday for meetings with heads of local churches, mosques, schools, hospitals, the Red Crescent Society and other agencies operating in Iraq.

The itinerary did not include visits with government leaders, but the delegation met yesterday with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, according to a media coordinator for the NCC.

The trip’s purpose is to assess the needs of suffering Iraqis, Trevor Fitzgibbon told WorldNetDaily.

“They aren’t there to critique the U.S. administration policy on Iraq,” he said. “They are there in a season of peace to deliver a message of peace.”

But a chief critic of the NCC called the trip “ill considered and dangerous” in a Dec. 24 letter to Edgar, urging him to cancel the mission.

“Such a visit by senior U.S. church officials already on record as strongly opposed to any U.S. military action can only give encouragement to Saddam Hussein and his supporters,” said Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C., in a statement.

Knippers asserted that the delegation, like a similar one 12 years ago, will be an “embarrassment” to U.S. church members whose officials are claiming to speak for them.

“This peace visit will do nothing to forestall war or alleviate the plight of Iraqis who suffer under a brutal dictatorship,” Knippers maintained.

Knippers wrote in the conclusion to her letter to Edgar, who served six terms in the House of Representatives as a Pennsylvania Democrat, that she hoped in these “perilous and difficult days” that “the church leaders could face such times realistically.”

“Instead,” she wrote, “you are about to embark on an effort that is ill considered, foolish, and dangerous. Neither the church of Jesus Christ nor the people of Iraq will be well served by this ecumenical peace mission. Please stay home.”

Attempts by WND to reach the delegation at their hotel in Baghdad were unsuccessful. Fitzgibbon said the group members’ cellphones were confiscated.

Meeting with Aziz

Fitzgibbon did not have details of the meeting with Aziz, but said the group’s purpose for visiting with the Iraqi leader was to restate their concern for the country’s humanitarian crisis.

“They didn’t get into who’s to blame,” Fitzgibbon said. “They weren’t pointing fingers at the U.S. government.”

Fitzgibbon said he did not know how the meeting with Aziz was arranged, but insisted that it did not come about at the request of the delegation.

Aziz, the chief spokesman for Iraq during the Gulf War, is a rare non-Muslim leader in the Arab world. He was reared in a Chaldean Christian family in northern Iraq and joined Saddam’s Baathist movement in the 1960s.

Another church-related delegation to Iraq this month also had an unscheduled meeting with Aziz.

Cliff Kindy – one of a dozen members of the “Iraq Peace Team” organized by a Church of the Brethren movement called “On Earth Peace” – wrote Dec. 11 in a diary account of his trip,
“Yesterday on very short notice seven of us were invited to meet with Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and former Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Hamdoon.”

“It was a free-flowing, friendly meeting at which we were able to get approval for our [Iraq Peace Team] plans and we talked extensively about the contrast between U.S. and world opinion concerning the potential war in Iraq,” Kindy said.

Kindy noted that “Aziz closed by saying that if war is prevented it will be a miracle. Hamdoon said such a miracle can never happen. I invited him to come walk with us in our work because we depend on miracles.”

While in Amman, Jordan, on Oct. 21, Kindy wrote: “Yesterday, Sadaam [sic] Hussein announced the release of all prisoners in Iraq except murderers who have not been forgiven by families or repayed [sic] their debt to society. It sets a good model for all other states and is an echo of Jesus’ ‘release to the captives.’”

Aziz has insisted that, since the end of 1991, all of Iraq’s weapons prohibited by the U.N. have been destroyed.

At a conference in October of Arab intellectuals and politicians opposed to military action against Iraq, Aziz asserted that all Arab states faced U.S. and Israeli domination in the event of war.

“Don’t think that [they are safe] if they make nice statements and offer bases to the Americans,” he said at the conference in Damascus, Syria. “When the crime ends, they will be made to submit to America and Zionism.”

‘Win Without War’

The NCC’s Edgar is part of a broad coalition of leaders of religious and civic organizations that launched a movement earlier this month titled “Keep America Safe: Win Without War.”

In a statement, the group said it “will seek to bring the case of alternative action to stop Iraqi militarism without resorting to American militarism.”

The coalition members assert that they are “patriotic Americans who share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction.”

Founding members include the NCC, the National Organization for Women, Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Move On, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Sojourners, Women’s Action for New Directions and Working Assets.

The group says it supports “rigorous U.N. weapons inspections to assure Iraq’s effective disarmament.”

“We believe that a preemptive military invasion of Iraq will harm American national interests,” the group said. “Unprovoked war will increase human suffering, arouse animosity toward our country, increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks, damage the economy and undermine our moral standing in the world. It will make us less, not more, secure.”

The coalition said, “We reject the doctrine – a reversal of long-held American tradition – that our country, alone, has the right to launch first-strike attacks. America is not that kind of country.”

“We can achieve the valid U.S. and U.N. objective of disarming Saddam Hussein through legal diplomatic means,” the members said. “There is no need for war. Let us instead devote our resources to improving the security and well being of people here at home and around the world.”

Messages of encouragement

Prior to the NCC’s current trip, which ends Friday, the delegation received messages of encouragement from members of the World Council of Churches, the umbrella group to which the NCC belongs.

WCC General Secretary Konrad Raiser said the WCC “deplores the fact that the most powerful nations of this world continue to regard war as an acceptable instrument of foreign policy, in violation of both the United Nations Charter and Christian teachings.”

The German church leader said the WCC “has always advocated for every member state to comply with binding U.N. resolutions and to resolve conflicts by peaceful means. Since the end of the Gulf War we have repeatedly called the government of Iraq to destroy its weapons of mass destruction and related research and production facilities, to cooperate fully with U.N. inspectors deployed to oversee compliance, and to guarantee full respect of the civil and political, economic, social and cultural human rights for all its citizens.”

“We are, however, deeply concerned with the potential human costs of a new war,” Raiser said. “The people of Iraq have suffered enough under a sanctions regime since 1991. Inflicting further punishment on innocent civilians is not morally acceptable to anyone. Churches around the world also caution against the potential social, cultural, and religious as well as diplomatic long-term consequences of such a war, especially a unilateral one.”

Keith Clements, general secretary of the Conference of European Churches, said to the delegation that “at a time when the language of conflict becomes so distorting and divisive, you will be demonstrating that the human family remains one, under the grace of the one God who creates, loves, judges and reconciles all.”

Along with Edgar, the delegation includes Dr. Huw Anwyl, minister, United Churches of Christ; Rev. Ray Buchanan, president, Stop Hunger Now and United Methodist minister; Rev. John Buehrens, former president, the Unitarian Universalist Association; Rev. Dr. Robert Evans, executive director, Plowshares Institute, Presbyterian pastor; Robin Hoeker, legislative assistant, Unitarian Universalist Association; Dr. Victor Makari, General Assembly staff, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Don Mosley, co-founder of Jubilee Partners; Ginger Paul, Episcopal Church, executive committee; Dr. Samer Shehata, assistant professor of Arab Politics, Georgetown University; Retired Bishop Melvin Talbert, United Methodist Church; Jim Winkler, general secretary, the General Board, United Methodist Church; and host Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, general secretary, Middle East Council of Churches.

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