Signs of the Times

Charity Groups Protest Military Oversight of Iraqi Aid

The Catholic Church’s top charity officials are protesting coalition military plans to oversee humanitarian aid distribution in Iraq, seeing it as part of a worrying trend in recent years toward militarizing aid. Two weeks into the U.S.-led war, Duncan MacLaren, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, a global confederation of Catholic aid agencies, said his group was lobbying the U.S. and British governments to turn over humanitarian coordination to the United Nations “as soon as possible.”

“For our own neutrality and to do our job properly, we have to insist that we work under the United Nations, not under a military-occupying power,” said MacLaren. Though Caritas is poised to deliver aid through its Iraqi member agency and has just launched an $8.4 million appeal for supplies, MacLaren said the start of distribution depends “on how much access we are given and then whether the U.N. is invited in.... Caritas is there to serve people in need and therefore it’s very important that we are seen as a neutral force and not taking either the side of the belligerents in this case or of the Iraqi regime.”


He said Caritas officials based in Kuwait planned to tour parts of southern Iraq with British military personnel on April 3 and 4 to make a first assessment of humanitarian needs there since the start of the war. But underscoring the sensitivity of the aid-militarization issue, he said the officials insisted that their identification badges be colored differently from those of the soldiers they would be traveling with.

MacLaren said U.N. humanitarian organizations, widely recognized and accepted by aid agencies and potential beneficiaries, should oversee Iraqi aid because “they are seen as neutral and actually know what they are doing.” He said recent television images of chaotic distributions in southern Iraq demonstrated that coalition soldiers “quite clearly haven’t a clue about distribution of humanitarian aid.” Some scenes involved soldiers firing handguns into the air to keep order, randomly throwing aid boxes off trucks into thronging mobs, and looking on as Iraqi men shoved aside needy women.

“For us, it undermines the dignity of the people,” MacLaren said. “And that’s the difference between a real humanitarian organization that cares for the people and a ‘hearts and minds’ operation, which this is, which frankly is for a political purpose,” he said.

In late March, 14 major U.S. aid agencies sent President George W. Bush a letter asking him to place the Iraqi humanitarian effort under the supervision of the United Nations. Catholic Relief Services, a U.S. member of the Caritas confederation, did not sign the letter, but it is carefully evaluating the level of its cooperation with government aid efforts in Iraq. While it has received U.S. government funding for other projects, C.R.S.—and its British counterpart, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, known as Cafod—has decided not to request money from the coalition governments in the case of Iraq.

MacLaren said the question of militarization of aid is a relatively new issue that first surfaced clearly during the recent wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Caritas has held talks with top NATO officials to express its concerns about the trend, and last year the confederation’s European partners drafted guidelines stressing the need for a clear demarcation between military and humanitarian operations.

Caritas Iraq runs 14 aid centers—mostly in northern and central Iraq—that are staffed by more than 130 employees and 120 volunteers, including doctors and paramedics. As a new war in Iraq looked increasingly inevitable, the agency trained its entire staff in first aid and distributed its stock of food supplies and water purification tablets, MacLaren said.

Caritas’s $8.4 million appeal for Iraq, issued on April 1, aims to provide three months’ worth of basic needs for 260,000 people displaced by the conflict. It plans to offer refugees shelter on about 90 church properties and with more than 20,000 host families in northern and central Iraq.

Pope Says Iraqi War Must Not Turn into ‘Religious Catastrophe’

As the toll of death and destruction mounted during the second week of war in Iraq, Pope John Paul II repeatedly prayed for peace and said the conflict must not be allowed to become a “religious catastrophe.” On March 29, addressing bishops visiting Rome from predominantly Muslim Indonesia, the pope said: “War must never be allowed to divide world religions. I encourage you to take this unsettling moment as an occasion to work together, as brothers committed to peace, with your own people, with those of other religious beliefs and with all men and women of good will in order to ensure understanding, cooperation and solidarity. Let us not permit a human tragedy also to become a religious catastrophe.”

Few Churchgoers Say Religious Beliefs Shape View of War

Although most Americans who attend church regularly said they have heard about the war in Iraq from the pulpit, only a small minority said their religious beliefs have been the biggest influence on their own thinking about the war, according to a national survey. The survey, released on March 19 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, also showed that only one-fifth of Americans said their clergy had taken a position on the war. Most white Catholic and African-American churchgoers usually heard an antiwar message, while white evangelical Protestants tended to get a pro-war viewpoint.

The poll of 1,032 adult Americans was conducted on March 13-16, before the commencement of bombing. The margin of error for the survey was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

“On balance, very few people say their religious beliefs are shaping their views on Iraq, unlike the relatively large percentage who report this about social and moral issues like gay marriage, abortion or the death penalty,” said a Pew report on the survey findings.

Nearly one-third (32 percent) of Americans said they thought religious leaders had said too little about war in Iraq, while 34 percent said they had said the right amount. Only 15 percent said religious leaders had said too much about war, while 19 percent said they didn’t know. Forty-two percent of those who oppose the war, however, thought religious leaders had said too little.

Among those who attend religious services at least twice a month, 57 percent reported that members of the clergy had spoken about the prospect of war from the pulpit, although 34 percent said the clergy had taken no position on the war. The poll found that those who did speak out generally followed the guidance of the national leaders of their denominations. For example, 14 percent of white Catholics reported that the priest had expressed opposition to war and none said they had heard a pro-war message. Among white mainline Protestants, 7 percent heard antiwar messages and 1 percent heard pro-war messages. But 15 percent of white evangelicals said their clergy had expressed support for the war, while only 3 percent said they had heard antiwar messages.

Asked what influences their thinking on the war, 41 percent cited the media, 16 percent personal experience, 11 percent their own educational background, 10 percent religious beliefs and 7 percent friends and family. Even among regular churchgoers, only 17 percent named religion as the biggest influence in their thinking on Iraq.

Nearly half (47 percent) said their biggest worry about the war was that the United States would not go far enough to achieve military victory, while 32 percent said they were more concerned that the United States would not do enough to avoid civilian casualties. Catholics (34 percent) and those with no religious affiliation (37 percent) were more likely to cite civilian casualties as a concern, compared with mainline Protestants (25 percent) and white evangelicals (23 percent).

Diocese Sues Archdiocese Over Priest Accused of Sexual Abuse

Facing a lawsuit related to sexual abuse by a Boston priest, the Diocese of San Bernardino in California has sued the Archdiocese of Boston to recover any damages it may incur. In 1990 the Boston Archdiocese attested to the good standing of the Rev. Paul Shanley when the priest moved to the San Bernardino area on medical leave and wanted to engage in priestly ministry there. Kevin English, now 30, sued the San Bernardino Diocese in January, alleging that Father Shanley sexually abused him while the priest was living and working in the diocese.

In its cross-complaint, filed on April 1, the Diocese of San Bernardino accuses Boston archdiocesan officials of “misrepresentations and suppression of information” in a letter of January 1990 that described Father Shanley as a “priest in good standing” who “has no problem that would be a concern to your diocese.” The San Bernardino Diocese said since it was given no warning of Father Shanley’s problems “the diocese has no responsibility in the actions that caused this lawsuit and should not bear its financial burden.”

News Briefs

• The Catholic and Orthodox bishops of Baghdad appealed for a cease-fire as a U.S.-led invasion entered its second week. In addition to the Catholic bishops, signatories to the appeal included representatives of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Apostolic Church and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.

• Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged members of the Senate to oppose any tax cuts that “abrogate our obligation to respond to basic human needs now and in the years to come.”

• The Vatican on April 1 called for the international community to work for disarmament through law rather than force. Citing “the gravity of the present situation,” the Vatican’s nuncio to the United Nations urged all governments to comply with their treaty commitments “in a genuine spirit of multilateralism.” The risks of “reciprocal destruction” make it necessary to follow “the laws and procedures” established to move the world “toward nuclear disarmament and the elimination of the threats posed by conventional arms,” said Archbishop Celestino Migliore.

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