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Moderate Christian Voice Crucial for Middle East Peace, Edgar Says

June 5, 2003, NEW YORK CITY -- The Bush Administration didn’t heed U.S. Christian opposition to the war on Iraq, recognizes the Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA who was a leading advocate for alternatives to the war.

But that "moderate voice" was appreciated by both Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, who credit it with helping to diffuse tensions the war could have created between their faith communities, Dr. Edgar heard repeatedly during his recent visit to the region.

"Religious and political leaders alike said they were pleased that not all Christians in the United States supported the war, and that many U.S. Christians are vocal on behalf of mutual respect and good interfaith relations," he said. "This helps to counter perceptions of a ‘Christian West’ lined up against the ‘Muslim world’ and to preserve the good relations Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims have built with one another over generations."

However, Dr. Edgar warned, fundamentalist Christians poised to seek to convert Iraqi Muslims to Christianity in the wake of the war threaten to undo those good relations.

"A vibrant Christian community has been present in the Middle East since the very beginning of Christianity," he said. "Local Christians feel offended that outsiders are disregarding their experience and even showing ignorance of Christians’ presence. They ask that instead of undermining them, we respect and support them."

Middle Eastern Christians also urged attention to Christians’ concerns in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. "Christians have been excluded from the discussion altogether, and they feel ignored and even betrayed," Dr. Edgar said. "Their needs and views need to be taken into account, along with those of Muslims and Jews."

Dr. Edgar, along with Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, NCC Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, participated in meetings of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP) May 27-28 and Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) May 29-30 in Amman, Jordan. Then they went on to Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon, May 31-June 1 for additional meetings with religious and political leaders.

Their itinerary built on an NCC-convened "domestic interfaith summit" April 30 in Chicago, at which 75 Christian, Muslim, Jewish and other religious leaders called for international multi-religious collaboration in support of religious tolerance and peace in post-conflict Iraq and elsewhere.

Twenty Iraqi Christian and Muslim leaders joined 40 WCRP Executive Committee members in Amman. According to the WCRP, it was the first time representatives of all of Iraq’s major religious groups - including Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian -- had met since Saddam Hussein took power.

The religious leaders from Iraq issued a joint statement at the conclusion of the meeting demanding that coalition forces abide by their full responsibilities as a de facto occupying power under international law, provide effective security and enhance the delivery of humanitarian assistance in collaboration with Iraqi religious and other social institutions.

In other words, they said that "now that the United States is in Iraq, it needs to do it right," said Dr. Kireopoulos. "If the United States doesn’t quickly rebuild Iraq, any possible good will for ousting Saddam Hussein will be exhausted."

Click here for the full text of the Iraqi religious leaders’ statement.

The Iraqi religious leaders urged the international community to follow through on their recommendations, and invited WCRP to work in partnership with Iraq’s religious communities to achieve these goals. A follow-up conference, to be held in Baghdad as soon as the situation there allows, will focus on the role of the religious community on building civil society in Iraq, Dr. Kireopoulos said.

Dr. Edgar and Dr. Kireopoulos also met with about 30 leaders of the Middle East Council of Churches, then were accompanied by MECC General Secretary Riad Jarjour to Syria and Lebanon for meetings with religious and political leaders.

Syrian President Bashar Assad "offered his country as the venue for a future interfaith conference to talk further about peace and religious pluralism," Dr. Kireopoulos said. The visitors also met with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Al Hariri and with a group of Christians and Muslims from various professions who meet to address issues of common concern.

Dr. Edgar noted the April 30 "domestic interfaith summit" call for an "international interfaith summit" to discuss a wide range of issues, including the pre-emptive strike doctrine, the war on terror, the Middle East peace plan, the role of religious fundamentalism, the perceived clash of civilizations and so forth.

Given the recent war, the Baghdad meeting could provide the context for the broader discussion, or it could be scheduled for another time and place, he said. Further planning will proceed over the course of the summer.

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