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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 23, 2006VOL. 44, NO. 2Oakland, CA

Bishops: Rethink strategy in Iraq

WASHINGTON -- America’s Catholic bishops have called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq “sooner rather than later,” and expressed concern that the war has drained funds from “pressing needs” at home and abroad.
Bishop Thomas Wenski, writing for the bishops’ international policy committee, called for an “honest assessment” of the Iraqi situation that avoids simplistic answers or partisan finger-pointing.

“Our nation cannot afford a shrill and shallow debate that distorts reality and reduces the options to `cut and run’ versus `stay the course,’” said Bishop Wenski, who heads the Diocese of Orlando, Fla.

The bishop’s eight-page statement, issued Jan. 12, said the Church – historically an influential voice on matters of war and peace – wants to help guide the nation in a “forthright” discussion that will lead to a “responsible transition” in Iraq.

The statement comes amid attempts by the White House to issue more candid assessments about Iraq, talk of reduced troop levels, congressional probes into allegations of torture and international discussions about Iraq’s political future.

Other churches have also tried to spark debate over Iraq’s future. Last November, the bishops of President Bush’s own denomination, the United Methodist Church, called for an “immediate” plan to withdraw troops.

Both the Catholic and United Methodist bishops staunchly opposed the war in 2003, saying it failed to meet “just war” criteria. Bush refused to meet with Methodist leaders, but did reluctantly receive a Vatican cardinal.

Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Church leaders “felt the urge, the desire, the need to say something” as the U.S. faces what Bishop Wenski called a “crossroads” in Iraq.

Bishop Wenski said the time for partisan battles over mistakes in the war or failed intelligence is over. “We must now look around and look ahead,” he wrote.

“The central moral question is not just the timing of U.S. withdrawal but rather the nature and extent of U.S. and international engagement that allows for a responsible transition to security and stability for the Iraqi people.”

He noted that the bishops’ conference “had repeatedly expressed grave moral concerns about the military intervention in Iraq and the unpredictable and uncontrollable negative consequences of an invasion and occupation. … At the same time our nation cannot just look back. The intervention in Iraq has brought with it a new set of moral responsibilities to help Iraqis secure and rebuild their country.”

The bishop warned against “over-simplifying the challenges we face,” both in securing the peace and stabilizing Iraq’s political future in “the painstaking, but necessary, path to peace after war and violence.”

Those challenges include investigating and ending allegations of torture, securing rights for religious minorities in Iraq, loosening restrictions on Iraqi refugees, promoting economic reconstruction to help create reasonable levels of employment and economic opportunity, supporting the development of political structure to advance stability, political participation, and respect for religious freedom and basic human rights, while continuing to address problems --particularly poverty -- at home in the U.S., Bishop Wenski said.

Jean Stokan, policy director for the Catholic peace group Pax Christi USA, praised the bishops for trying to re-engage the Church in the debate over Iraq’s future, and also trying to prevent future pre-emptive wars.

“The religious sector is direly needed at this time to speak to this moment with clarity ... in recapturing the values of the common good,” Stokan said.

Thousands of Iraqis attend Friday prayers on a street in Baghdad’s Sadr City, Jan. 6. Violent insurgent attacks continue throughout the area.

RNS PHOTO/REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

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