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1999 NCC News Archives

U.S. Religious Leaders Receive Freed Soldiers, Bring Them Out
Group Led by Jesse Jackson, Joan Campbell Accompanies the Soldiers to Germany

DEPARTURE STATEMENT
May 2, 1999

Issued By
The Mission of
United States Religious Leaders
to Belgrade

We, the Mission of the United States Religious Leaders to Belgrade, headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, give thanks to God, the Author of peace and justice. Our common faith in God has brought us together in our opposition to all forms of violence and to offer a positive option for peace. The choice we affirms is to go forward by hopes and dreams and not to recycle pains and sorrows. We rejoice greatly this day in the release of the three American soldiers held captive in Belgrade. Nevertheless, our joy is framed against the sorrowful reality of the many innocent lives lost in the current NATO bombing campaign. Therefore, we remain firmly committed to the non-violent resolution of this conflict.

The conflict in Yugoslavia must end quickly and humanely. Together with the religious leadership of Yugoslavia, we want to help build a bridge of trust leading to just diplomacy. The contribution of faith forms a spiritual bridge between our peoples which cannot be destroyed.

Many things trouble us deeply: the violence in Kosovo which has led to thousands of refugees; the death and destruction from the bombing campaign; and the constant rhetoric that demonizes rather than engages.

The violence suffered by all people in Yugoslavia must end. Bombing and more war cannot bring peace. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" brings mutual blindness and disfigurement. Our sense of kinship transcends political lines and this is why we want to build the bridge of peace. Peace with justice is worth the risk. The role of faith must be a binding factor in this entire equation. We want to be forces for good and to promote negotiation over confrontation. We can bring about peace with security if we have the will to co-exist.

Our allegiance is to peace and justice for all of God’s children. We have met with the religious leadership of Yugoslavia and together:

- We affirm that we are one family of God.

- We believe that animosity amongst God’s children is destructive to all.

- We are convinced that war is evil. It harms both the Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

- We affirm our support for each other in our pastoral efforts toward peace.

- We will continue to work together to heal the wounds of war.

We wish to thank the Serbian Orthodox Church, under the leadership of His Holiness Patriarch Pavle, and all other communities of faith in Yugoslavia and throughout the world for their efforts in seeking the release of the three American soldiers. We appeal to all persons of goodwill to build lasting bridges of peace and reconciliation.

-end-

May 2, 1999, BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, and ZAGREB, Croatia – The three U.S. soldiers captured March 31 and held by Serb forces were released this morning to the 19-member delegation of U.S. Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders whose humanitarian mission to Belgrade had sought their freedom.

After the formalities were completed in Belgrade, the soldiers and religious leaders departed for the border between Yugoslavia and Croatia, where they walked across, hand-in-hand with the delegation’s co-leaders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Founder and President of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary, National Council of Churches.

They continued on together to the Zagreb airport, where the soldiers and key delegation leaders boarded a plane for Germany. Other delegation members followed in a second plane, which developed engine trouble and had to turn back to Zagreb. They were making arrangements to join the others in Germany as quickly as possible.

The delegation’s day began officially at 6:30 a.m. with a news conference at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Belgrade. There, the group presented its departure statement, which pleads, "The violence suffered by all people in Yugoslavia must end. Bombing and more war cannot bring peace." (Complete text accompanies.)

Then the delegation went to meet the soldiers. "They came in and stood at attention with great dignity and self respect and they were quite self-contained and in control," reported the Rev. Roy Lloyd, NCC Broadcast News Director, who accompanied the delegation. "The Rev. Jackson made a statement that praised the government for this bold step that was made without any conditions, and the military leader under whose care the soldiers were kept said they had been models of decorum and had been treated within the boundaries of the Geneva Accord.

"Then the Revs. Jackson and Campbell and Congressman (Rod) Blagojevich sat down with the military officials and signed official documents releasing the soldiers to the religious mission to Belgrade."

The Rev. Jackson told the young men they could "stand down," because they were now free men, came over to the table where they were embraced and prayed over, and then each was given opportunity to call his family. "The soldiers and religious mission then departed by road for the Yugo-Croatian border, where the transition took place very smoothly," the Rev. Lloyd reported.

"When the soldiers were brought in," he said, "there were tears of joy in the eyes of those present. When the young men were embraced, and prayed for, and touched, and held, all cried tears of joy for their safe protection while in captivity and for their release."

At the border, the three soldiers – Staff Sgt. Andrew A. Ramirez of Los Angeles, Calif.; Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Stone of Smiths Creek, Mich., and Specialist Steven M. Gonzales of Huntsville, Texas – told news media "they had developed friendships with their captors, felt fondly about them and had prayed with them before they left," he continued. "Christopher Stone said he had told one of the soldiers looking after him that he hoped that war would not separate them and that the two countries and the two armed forces would not be forced to be enemies."

The team crossed the border into Croatia and came to the Zagreb airport, where another news conference was held. Reported the Rev. Lloyd, "The Rev. Jackson repeated his call for some sort of positive response from the U.S. government to what was an unconditional release of the soldiers, as a sign of good will which could leave to dialogue rather than conflict."

The Rev. Jackson noted that he carried with him a letter from Yugoslavia’s President, Slobodan Milosevic for President Clinton, expressing his willingness to meet anywhere the U.S. President decided was appropriate. He reported that President Milosevic had pledged to discuss returning the refugees to Kosovo, their safety and the use of an international force to protect their safety and that of Serbian people, and also to be sure violence was not done to anyone in Yugoslavia, the Rev. Lloyd recounted.

He continued that at each of the day’s news conferences, the Rev. Jackson praised Dr. Campbell for her ability to put together such a broad and inclusive religious mission to Belgrade and thanked her for her tireless efforts which have kept the focus on the religious mission and brought about the release of the captives. Dr. Campbell, in turn, stressed that the group’s mission was religious and not political. She said each of the delegation members -- Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Protestant – had played a key role in the release of captives through their actions, their conversations and their prayers.

-end-

This story was reported by Roy Lloyd and written by Carol Fouke, both of the NCC Communication Department.

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