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Religious leaders ask Obama
for official torture inquiry

See op-ed by Dr. Kinnamon  and Rabbi Steve Gutow

Washington, June 12, 2009 -- More than 150 religious leaders representing the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) gathered in front of the White House Thursday to urge the Obama Administration to form a commission of inquiry to investigate the government's past use of torture.

"The churches that make up the National Council of Churches do not agree on all things," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC General Secretary, addressing the interfaith gathering in front of the White House, "but on this we agree: all human life is precious because it bears the image of God. Torture, by reducing victims to the status of despised objects, denies this preciousness, debasing tortured and torturers alike."

Noting the presence of Jews and Muslims in the crowd, Kinnamon said, "The faith communities that gather here are genuinely diverse, and yet on this we agree: torture is intrinsically evil, having a corrosive effect on the whole of society. Our nation's moral standing has been compromised, and our commitment to the rule of law undermined by the practice of torture authorized in the past by American leaders."

Other NCC leaders present at the demonstration were the NCC President, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, and President Elect, the Rev. Peg Chemberlin. In addition, several heads of NCC member communions were present to join in the call for a commission of inquiry on the U.S. use of torture.

Archbishop Aykazian, legate of the Armenian Church in America, offered a prayer and a blessing of water.

The Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, decried the use of torture.

"Its ugliness must be exposed and judged against the bright light of truth," he said at a news conference before the event. He and the other speakers said they thought a commission that would unveil the truth was essential to create new safeguards and to move forward as a nation.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, strongly condemned torture. "Torture stands as a sin on a par with genocide and mass murder," he said.


After the demonstration in La Fayette Park, 33 senior religious leaders crossed the street and entered the White House to speak with administration officials.

The Rev. Richard Killmer, executive director of NRCAT, said he was pleased with the opportunity to address the issue directly with the Obama administration.

“We were pleased ... to discuss our strong support for the establishment of an independent, non-partisan Commission of Inquiry to investigate the development and implementation of a program of torture by the United States in the years after 9/11," Killmer said. 

"Unfortunately, as is known publicly, President Obama does not currently support the establishment of an investigative Commission.  However, the officials with whom we met heard our concerns and welcomed our input.  This is not the end of this process; it is merely the beginning.  As events continue to unfold, we will advocate for a Commission of Inquiry that can uncover all of the facts.  We cannot simply bury our past for as the Bible says, ‘the truth shall make us free.’”

President Obama has expressed a preference for concealing many of the details of past practices, citing the threats to American prestige and the dangers to women and men in uniform if the full story is told.

"It is sometimes said," Kinnamon observed, "that a full inquiry will lower the prestige of the U.S. worldwide; but we believe to the contrary that the stature of this nation will be uplifted if we face our past with integrity."

Kinnamon implored the President to "rethink your decision about a commission of inquiry. Listen to the voice of these faith communities. Listen to the experience of sisters and brothers around the world. Create an independent, non-partisan commission in order that evil is revealed for what it is and finally rejected by this nation."

The religious leaders gave White House officials a letter to the President, signed by 51of their colleagues.

The text of the letter follows:

June 11, 2009

The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500 

Dear Mr. President: 

As senior religious leaders in the United States, we write to give voice to the compelling need for a comprehensive investigation into U.S.-sponsored torture since 9/11.  We believe the most credible way to conduct such an investigation is by establishing an independent, non-partisan Commission of Inquiry.  Such a Commission is necessary to: (1) uncover the whole truth about U.S. torture policies and practices; (2) mobilize a national consensus, and (3) build support for the requisite safeguards to ensure that U.S.-sponsored torture never happens again. 

We know that you share with us the understanding that torture is wrong – without exception, that it is illegal and immoral.  You have stated this unequivocally.  You matched your words with action on the second full day of your Administration when you signed the executive order banning torture.  With that order, you signaled to our nation, as well as to the world, your determination to return the United States to the rule of law and to begin the process of restoring our nation’s moral stature in the global community.  We are profoundly grateful for your swift and decisive action in signing this executive order.  

But an executive order is not enough.  It can be superseded by laws, and, as we've seen, even laws are in jeopardy of being superseded by national emergencies.  Our nation can guarantee the abolition of torture only if and when we put in place safeguards to prevent once and for all the future twisting and abrogation of the existing laws that prohibit torture. 

You have publicly announced your opposition to a Commission of Inquiry, stating that our existing institutions are adequate for investigating what went wrong.  You have expressed your desire to look forward, not backward.  We agree we must look forward -- forward to a future where torture will never happen again.  But we believe that the only avenue to, and guarantee of, such a future is a Commission of Inquiry.  An investigation of U.S.-sponsored torture will only be credible and thorough if conducted by a Commission comprised of citizens who are well-respected, non-partisan, and independent-minded.  

The reality is that our nation is now shackled to a shameful history of torture.  As people of faith we know that only the truth can set us free.  We must therefore, as a nation, be mature and honest enough to examine fully and disclose completely the wrong doing that has been committed.  The transparency and openness of a Commission of Inquiry will help to hold us all accountable for the policies and acts of torture carried out in our name.  Accountability is essential in a nation of laws. 

Recent polls show that many people of faith have been persuaded that the use of torture can be justified in some situations.  These findings weigh heavily on us, as religious leaders.  We have more work to do to educate our people.  We accept our responsibility to bear bold and compelling witness to the sanctity of the divine image in all people and to the fact that torture in every instance defiles and desecrates this divine image.  We commit ourselves anew to great faithfulness in preaching to and teaching our members. 

We beseech you, in furtherance of your responsibility to restore, protect, and preserve the sanctity and rule of law in this nation, to commit yourself to the creation of a Commission of Inquiry that will uncover the truth, identify and establish legal safeguards, and guarantee for our children and grand-children a future in this country free of torture, without exceptions.  

We pray for you “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God” (Isaiah 11:2).  And we look to you to lead our nation back to the path of truth and justice.   

Sincerely, 

Rev. Dr. John H. Thomas
General Minister and President
United Church of Christ 

Rabbi Steve Gutow
President
Jewish Council for Public Affairs 

Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon
General Secretary
National Council of Churches 

Archbishop Vicken
Diocesan Legate
Armenian Church of America 

Rev. William G. Sinkford
President
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations 

Marie Dennis
Co-President
Pax Christi International 

The Most Reverend Michael Seneco
Presiding Bishop
North American Old Catholic Church 

Dr. Ingrid Mattson
President
Islamic Society of North America 

Rev. Peg Chemberlin
Executive Director
Minnesota Council of Churches
President-Elect, National Council of Churches 

Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer, President
The Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church 

Jim Winkler
General Secretary
General Board of Church and Society
The United Methodist Church 

Bishop Demetrios of Mokissos
Chancellor
Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago 

Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center
Union of Reform Judaism 

Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee
President
Evangelicals for Human Rights 

Charlie Clements
President and CEO
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee 

Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed
National Director, Interfaith and
Community Alliances
Islamic Society of North America 

Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins
General Minister and President
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 

Rabbi Jack Moline
Director of Public Policy
Rabbinical Assembly 

Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop
Episcopal Church 

Rev. Gradye Parsons
Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
Presbyterian Church, USA 

Joe Volk
Executive Secretary
Friends Committee on National Legislation 

Stanley J. Noffsinger
General Secretary
Church of the Brethren 

Rabbi Eric Yoffie
President
Union for Reform Judaism 

Manmohan Singh,
Secretary General
World Sikh Council - America Region 

Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus
President
Central Conference of American Rabbis 

Rabbi Yael Ridberg
President
Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association 

Archbishop Nicolae Condrea
Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese in the Americas 

Arthur M. Larrabee
General Secretary
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) 

Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ  

Rev. J. George Reed
Executive Director
North Carolina Council of Churches 

Rev. Jack Johnson
Executive Director
Massachusetts Council of Churches 

Rev. Geoffrey A. Black
Conference Minister
New York Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rev. Jill Job Saxby
Executive Director
Maine Council of Churches 

Rev. Dr. Rick Schlosser
Executive Director
California Council of Churches 

Rev. Chuck Barnes
Conference Minister
Rhode Island Conference
United Church of Christ 

Scott D. Anderson
Executive Director
Wisconsin Council of Churches 

Bishop Sally Dyck,
Minnesota Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church 

Bishop Neil L. Irons
Executive Secretary
The Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church 

Rev. Dr. Jim Antal
Minister and President
Massachusetts Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
Co-chairperson
Rabbis for Human Rights-North America 

Marilyn P. Mecham
Executive
Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska 

Rev. Gary M. Schulte
Conference Minister
New Hampshire Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rev. Dr. Davida Foy Crabtree
Conference Minister
Connecticut Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rev. Dennis D. Sparks
Executive Director
West Virginia Council of Churches 

Rev. Dr. Barbara Dua
Executive Director
New Mexico Conference of Churches 

Rev. David R. Gaewski
Conference Minister
Maine Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rev. Lynn Bujnak
Conference Minister
Vermont Conference
United Church of Christ 

Rev. Gary Harke
Executive Director
Pennsylvania Council of Churches 

Bishop Warner Brown
California-Nevada Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church 

Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten
Executive Director
Arizona Ecumenical Council 

James Schrag
Executive Director
Mennonite Church USA


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell) , pjenks@ncccusa.org
Pictures by Rich Killmer, NRCAT

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