Iraq crisis: Bishops express concern at escalation of war fever

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Eight Church of England bishops have publicly expressed their fears that Britain and the United States may be hurtling towards an armed conflict with Iraq which could lead to large scale civilian casualties and could not be morally justified .

The views expressed in a letter to The Independent newspaper by the senior clerics is the first sign of the opposition and concern among those in the hierarchy of the church to what is seen as increasing war fever in London and Washington, and the belligerent attitude of the governments of the two countries.

A peace rally to be held at Westminster in central London tomorrow night is expected to draw a large crowd. It will be addressed by Members of Parliament, show business personalities and members of a number of religious denominations. Labour MPs George Galloway and Tam Dalyell say that they have received hundreds of letters of support.

An opinion poll published yesterday showed that among all age groups support for British involvement in military action was 56 per cent, with 32 per cent against. Among those aged between 18 and 24, support was even higher, with 65 per cent in favour of military involvement and 22 per cent against.

However, those arguing against air strikes feel that the war lobby has so far won the debate almost by default, and the time has now come to present the case for peace.

The letter to this newspaper is signed by Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth; Peter Price, Bishop of Kingston; Barry Morgan, Bishop of Bangor; Wilfred Wood, Bishop of Croydon; John Austin, Bishop of Aston; Christopher Mayfield, Bishop of Manchester; Graham James, Bishop of St Germain; William Ind, Bishop of Truro; Jack Nicholls, Bishop of Sheffield and Peter Selby, Bishop of Worcester.

It says: "As Anglican bishops we are concerned about the present direction of British and American policy on Iraq. We share the concern of the British and American governments that every effort be made to stop - or at least limit - the damage being done by Saddam Hussein's regime to his regime and the stability of the entire region. However, any action that will involve large-scale civilian casualties in Iraq leaves the Western nations in a weak moral position. What is more, military intervention by Western nations is likely to reinforce the already deep military mistrust of the West".

The bishops state that they are not objecting "from a pacifist position" but from a common concern to urge government to search more actively for alternatives to violence, and to seek to work with international consensus rather than allowing any kind of "superpower" mentality to make the running.

According to the Church of England, the senior churchmen had thought long and hard about becoming involved in the growing controversy because they did not want to be seen to be interfering in the political arena. However, it was felt in the end that their views should be put to the public. The letter states: " We raise these points on the basis of Christian conviction that innocent citizens have the right not to become the target of threats of violence".

The bishops ask the Government to consider that military action not endorsed by the United Nations Security Council might weaken the credibility of the UN in the Arab world: not all options have been exhausted so as to justify the launching of war and since the exact locations of chemical and biological production centres are not known, there is no certainty of knowing that they have been eliminated.

The rally tomorrow night is due to be be attended or receive the support of, among others, the writer Harold Pinter, historian Antonia Fraser, actress Vanessa Redgrave, producer Thelma Holt, writer and director Alan Rickman, and former members of the diplomatic service.

Letter, page 20