Greenbelt: young Christians urged to oppose war on Iraq first posted 26 August 2002

 CHELTENHAM - first posted 26 August 2002 - 668 words

Thousands of Christians were urged to make their opposition to war against Iraq heard, as religious leaders from across the faith spectrum addressed a packed seminar at Greenbelt Festival yesterday.

The future Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, was among those who spoke of the need to mobilise public opinion across the country.

"We have an extraordinary window of opportunity here in this country," he said.

"It's clear that public opinion here, and again in the US, is turning and can be turned further. We have already seen some quite significant shifts in what many thought was an automatic run-up to war. It is not automatic."

More than 10,000 people are gathered at Cheltenham Racecourse this bank holiday weekend to attend Greenbelt Festival, the annual four-day Christian carnival now approaching its 30th year.

US social activist Jim Wallis, who is preparing a joint statement by US and British church leaders against any war, appealed to religious people throughout Britain to make their voice heard.

"The one voice that can stop the US war against Iraq is the British voice," he said.

"Back home there is not grassroots support for a war against Iraq. There are about five men who want a war against Iraq. Until this week it looked like they might win.

"But I want to say to you, please don't underestimate your voice. Back home it's being reported that our British allies are the only ones looking to support the war against Iraq. But it would be the worst disaster since Vietnam.

"You can and should make a difference."

Panel members from Christian, Muslim and Jewish backgrounds questioned the nature of religious leadership post-September 11.

Such an act should prompt us to ask where we have failed, Rowan Williams said.

"If being religious is believing that you are answerable to something quite other than your own need, and that you are under judgment, then perhaps the most significant act of religious leadership is someone saying on behalf of their community that we have failed and we have not understood."

Imam Ovaisi, a lecturer in Muslim studies, disputed the fact that there was a dark side of any religion.

"The evil of men who twist religious meanings to suit their own ends is the darkness we see. The answer lies in tolerance and openness and charity to one another. The world will be better off when all followers of all religions obey the teachings of their faith."

Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal of Jerusalem called on the church to lead at such a crucial time.

"Woe to us if we resort to the weapons of evildoers. We are called upon to resort to the weapons of God," he said.

"I wish to see the church lead. It's only through people of faith, be they Christian, Muslim or Jew, that people can change the history of the world. Otherwise it will be life for life and we will all end up dead."

Naima Bouteldja, a French Algerian student activist and member of a Muslim human rights network, criticised those who blamed a religion for the reaction of its followers.

"I have not blamed the whole Jewish community for the attacks on the Palestinians ­ I don't ask rabbis to justify it. I would never blame Christians for the massacre done in the Crusades. But when it comes to Islam you have voices saying there may be something wrong in the nature of this religion."

Jewish Israeli activist Jeff Halper questioned what the point of people of faith having values if it meant they did not stand up to President Bush.

"What kind of world is emerging and what kind of role are we playing in seeing that world come about?" he asked.

"September 11 symbolises the divide between the world based on revenge and might is right, and the world based on the ideas of universal human rights. We have to see this as a tent. If Israel succeeds in deflecting everyone's attention from occupation then Israel wins."

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