Leading Article: The bishop is for bombing

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THE BISHOP of Barking, the Rt Rev Roger Sainsbury, has acted bravely, but not necessarily wisely, in publicly supporting air strikes against Serbian targets in Bosnia. He is the first senior Church of England cleric to call for military action against the Serbs. He did so in unusually specific terms by urging the Prime Minister 'to deploy troops and give full support to US plans to get Nato to bomb Serbian targets'. He went on to say: 'Only strong Western action is going to save the people of Sarajevo . . . I am ashamed to be part of a church that has given no leadership on this issue, and I believe people in the pews are ashamed, too.'

Few will surely question the right, even duty, of churchmen to speak out on issues of life and death, and especially on one that has caused Western consciences so much anguish. The issue was well put recently by Adrian Hastings, professor of theology at Leeds university and a former Roman Catholic priest. Commenting on the church's silence, he wrote: 'It is precisely when the normal mechanisms of society are failing to guard the value of humanity that the church is needed. That remains its supreme social justification: to be a prophetic voice, the voice of the voiceless, the unsilenceable defender of the poor and of justice.' All the more so, he added, if the chief victims are Muslims being destroyed by nominal Christians.

The Bishop of Barking evidently shares the acute sense of anger, frustration and shame so widely engendered by the West's inability to prevent the vile policy of ethnic cleansing practised by all three parties to the conflict. Those feelings have been voiced by many of the 4,000 and more Independent readers who have written to express support for our campaign for action to save Sarajevo. The pervasive sense of guilt and foreboding has been deepened by memories of the Thirties, when Hitler's annexation of the Rhineland, of Sudetenland and of Austria went militarily unchallenged: Bishop George Bell of Chichester was then virtually alone among leading churchmen in condemning the Nazi rampage.

For articulating the stirring of many troubled consciences, and for raising the issue as a Christian one, the Bishop of Barking deserves thanks. But he is surely wrong in going on to specify the military means by which humanitarian goals should be achieved. It is precisely the uncertainty of the effect of bombing the Serbs that has caused the divisions and indecision of the West over whether to move from threats to action.

The bishop belongs to a group called the Alliance To Defend Bosnia. He has heard the views of military men. The conclusion he has reached is widely shared, though where Sarajevo is concerned the Independent believes priority should be given to securing the Mostar road through central Bosnia as a relief route.

But it is surely not for a bishop to be backing specific military tactics, however thoroughly he has studied the alternatives. Unlike the great Bishop Bell, who went on to condemn an Allied strategy that involved hideous loss of civilian life, namely saturation bombing, Barking's bishop is advocating a particular way of killing people, in this case mainly, but probably not exclusively, Serb soldiers.

With luck, however, his remarks will persuade some of his colleagues to stop hiding behind the feeble argument that Bosnia is too complex an issue for public church comment. That evil on a scale unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War has taken place is not in doubt. The Bishop of Barking is right to rise to the challenge. Only the military specificity of his response is at fault.