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1999 NCC News Archives

Interfaith Delegation That Freed U.S. Soldiers Returns Home,
Meets with President Clinton and U.N. Secretary General

May 6, 1999, NEW YORK -- Exhausted but elated, the interfaith delegation co-led by Joan Campbell and Jesse Jackson returned from Yugoslavia with hope that the moment of joy over the release of the three U.S. soldiers would translate into a moment of peace.

Delegation members brought this message to meetings with President Clinton (May 3) and United Nations (U.N.) Secretary General Kofi Annan (May 4). In both meetings, delegation members encouraged the world leaders to work for the release of two Yugoslav prisoners who continue to be held by NATO and to pursue diplomatic solutions to the conflict in Kosovo.

A delegation of 12 Christian, Muslim and Jewish leaders, including Dr. Campbell and Rev. Jackson, journeyed to Belgrade April 28 - May 1 on a "pilgrimage of faith" on the invitation of Patriarch Pavle of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Yugoslavia’s Ambassador to the U.N., Vladislav Jovanovic. The group went intending to meet with leaders from the many faith communities in Belgrade and to visit the three captive soldiers.

Over two days, April 30 and May 1, various members of the delegation were able to visit the soldiers. On May 1, a smaller group met with Slobodan Milosevic, President of Yugoslavia, and pressed for the soldiers’ release. Later that day, it was granted. On May 2, the three soldiers were handed over to the delegation who traveled with them to Zagreb where they were all placed in the care of the U.S. Army and flown to a base in Germany. The delegation parted with the soldiers there. On May 3, the interfaith delegation was flown home as the soldiers’ families were joyfully reuniting with them in Germany.

"We return today grateful to our God for working wonders in our midst," said the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell at a news conference Monday upon return to Andrews Air Force Base from Germany. "We went to perform our pastoral calling to visit those in prison and to release the captives," she said. "We negotiated for and were granted their release – unconditionally. Today we rejoice in our hearts in the freedom of Andrew Ramirez, Steven Gonzales and Christopher Stone. Their freedom is not just theirs alone."

Included in this pastoral calling, Dr. Campbell said, is "talking to the enemy, even loving the enemy." Both Dr. Campbell and Rev. Jackson stressed the need to "build spiritual bridges that can’t be blown up" and called for an end to violence on all sides. They took this same message into their two high-level meetings with President Clinton and Secretary General Annan.

Delegation Emphasizes Humanitarian Nature of Mission with President Clinton

In their meeting with President Clinton and his foreign policy staff, delegation members stressed that they went to Belgrade as citizens and as religious leaders to meet with religious leaders in the region and with a specific request to Milosevic to free the prisoners. "We didn’t go to negotiate for the government or to create policy," Dr. Campbell said. "We went as religious leaders whose communities of faith have lines that cross nation states and whose organizations do humanitarian work in the region. This was, itself, a humanitarian mission."

"We assured the President and the others that all of us in the delegation had in fact repeated the four NATO points faithfully to every person every time we talked in Belgrade," Dr. Campbell said, "those four points being that the violence had to stop in Kosovo, the refugees needed to be repatriated, a diplomatic solution should be sought and that there be the establishment of a NATO peacekeeping force."

"We pressed hard the possibility that the two Yugoslav prisoners be returned to the Serbian Orthodox Church," Dr. Campbell said. "They listened carefully to our request and essentially said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’"

President Clinton was less receptive to Rev. Jackson’s idea that the President call Milosevic to thank him for releasing the three American soldiers, Dr. Campbell said.

A letter from Milosevic was delivered to President Clinton, but the delegation members did not know its contents.

Dr. Campbell said delegation members also stressed that the NATO bombing is very destructive and that civilians are being hurt and killed. Delegation members acknowledged that the bombing is not the moral equivalent of the violence wrought by Milosevic in the region, but pressed Clinton and the others to explain what purpose the bombings were serving.

Humanitarian Concerns on Kofi Annan

These kind of humanitarian concerns were also on the agenda during the May 4 meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, attended only by Dr. Campbell and Rev. Jackson. "The Secretary General said he felt the trip was an important initiative which changed the debate, especially in this country," Dr. Campbell said.

"We pressed for the U.N. to get heavily involved in working toward a settlement, because one of the things Milosevic said is that he would accept a peacekeeping force provided it was under U.N. auspices," Dr. Campbell said. "President Clinton has also said the U.N. should be involved, though he believes the major player should be the United States and Milosevic told us he would see a NATO peacekeeping force as a police force, even using the word ‘occupation.’ Mr. Annan, of course, is aware of all of these complexities."

"Mr. Annan assured us that the United Nations is already working to establish a diplomatic settlement and will increase their efforts," she reported. "He also talked a great deal about the humanitarian crisis already existing and building in Kosovo, where there are some 400,000 refugees who will not have housing when winter comes, and we discussed the need for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to be emphasizing these concerns."

Commenting on both meetings, Dr. Campbell said, "You can see the diplomacy getting more complicated, but also see it beginning to work."

Dr. Campbell said her reflections on the trip included as many memories of prayer as of negotiations. "We prayed as if our lives depended on it," she said, "and maybe they did."

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