At its February 24-25 executive board meeting, the National Council of Churches (NCC) spotlighted its international campaign against any military effort to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The council also revealed evidence of its continuing financial decline, as another year of deficit spending loomed.
Former NCC President Melvin Talbert, a United Methodist bishop, reported to the board about the NCC’s New Year’s peace pilgrimage to Baghdad, in which he and NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar were joined by 11 other U.S. church officials. Talbert described the journey as a “pastoral visit” to the people and religious communities of Iraq. And he said the NCC officials wanted to be “humanitarian inspectors” who focused on the Iraqi civilians who might suffer in a war. The delegation did not publicly discuss the Iraqi government’s failure to dismantle its weapons of mass destruction, which might be the cause of a new war.
Although the delegation had not planned to visit with Iraqi government officials, Iraqi officials “desired to see us,” Talbert explained. Among them was Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, whom the NCC delegation asked “20 questions about human rights.” Talbert did not give any details about what those questions were.
When asked for details, Edgar dodged: “We made sure the questions were pointed and tough. We pressed pretty hard.” But he did not name a single specific concern about human rights in Iraq. Edgar said the “highlight” of the meeting was praying with Aziz, who is a Chaldean Catholic.
The NCC officials visited churches and mosques, a hospital that still housed children who were victims of bombs dropped by the United States in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and a shelter destroyed by U.S. bombs in that war, killing 408 women and children. “It was a terrible misjudgment by our military,” Talbert said. He did not show any awareness of the Iraqi regime’s policy of deliberately locating civilians in proximity to potential military targets.
Talbert described the Iraqis that the peace pilgrims met as a “proud people desiring to be left alone.” They continually asked the NCC officials why the United States is “rushing” to war and why it is “targeting” women and children with economic sanctions. Talbert alleged that 500,000 Iraqi babies had died because of the UN-instituted sanctions. Other sources blame the Iraqi government, which has diverted billions of dollars from its oil sales for its weapons programs.
“Children want to know why the U.S. wants to kill them,” Talbert said. “Why does the U.S. want to use its imperial power to crush a small nation?” was another question that he said had been asked by Iraqi religious leaders. The bishop seemed to assume that all of his interlocutors were expressing their own deepest convictions. He made no mention of the possibility that some of them might be feeling pressure to adhere to the Iraqi government line.
Talbert complained that the U.S. has rejected any “conversation” with Saddam Hussein’s regime, which he described as determined to defend its nation. “We are not threatened by Iraq,” Talbert asserted. Instead, it is Israel that is actually threatened by Iraq. “Are we being a surrogate for Israel?” Talbert asked provocatively.
“I haven’t heard valid reasons for a unilateral war with Iraq,” Talbert concluded. “We should go to war only if the United Nations agrees it’s the last resort to disarm Iraq,” he observed, to applause from the board members.
NCC officials have also visited Paris, London, and Berlin to lobby against war with Saddam. Having met with the British prime minister and German chancellor, they plan to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March. Last week, an NCC delegation visited Rome to ask the Pope to address the United Nations in a call for peace. The visit was organized by Pax Christi, a liberal Catholic organization.
“I’m still optimistic this war can be stopped,” Edgar opined. “There are people out there who care about a peaceful world.” As an example, he reported that an anonymous female donor had given $205,000 to cover the costs of the NCC’s anti-war travels.
The donation could not come at a better time. For the first seven months of this fiscal year the NCC is facing a $462,678 deficit. Income this fiscal year so far is $1,743,785, compared to $3,212,181 at the same point last year. Expenditures this year are $2,206,463, compared to $3,858,642 in the same months last year. Income from foundations, which has been a major focus for Edgar, is up. But income from member denominations is down. The NCC’s workforce has declined from 53 employees last year to 33 employees currently.
Referring to news reports of last year declaring that the NCC finally had a balanced budget, NCC Treasurer Phil Young said sardonically: “That’s one way to describe where we are. Another way is to actually look at the numbers.” Young said the NCC’s budget office expects a final deficit of $200,000 for this fiscal year. But Edgar insisted that the year would end with a balanced budget, with major gifts set to arrive in the next several months.
The NCC’s largest donors are the United Methodist Church, which is expected to give $431,095 this year, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which is expected to give $421,177. None of the other 36 member denominations comes close to those levels of giving. Eight member communions are contributing nothing at all to the NCC this year.
Over dinner the NCC board members were joined by a visiting delegation of Chinese religious and government officials. These included the heads of the Chinese government-approved China Christian Council for Protestants, as well as the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
“We are thankful to our government for the right policy of religious freedom,” said the Rev. Shengjie Cao, president of the China Christian Council. “They are practicing it better and better in recent years.”
“Some Americans think we still persecute religious believers,” said Bishop Tieshan Fu of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. “It’s hard for them to make friends with us. We want to share what’s happening with our friends in America.” The Chinese bishop apparently counted the NCC among those “friends” who pay little attention to the well-documented reports of continuing violations of religious freedom in many parts of China.
The delegation reported the official Chinese government claims that the nation has 15 million Protestants and 5 million Catholics. But unofficial sources claim that Chinese Christians may number as many as 70 million or more. None of the NCC board members openly challenged any of the claims by the Chinese delegation.
Also distributed to the NCC board was a letter addressed to the NCC general secretary from the head of the Korean Christian Federation, which is the government-approved church group in North Korea. The letter accused the United States of “intentionally aggravating the situation of the Korean Peninsula” with its “reckless nuclear racket.” The North Korean religious official thanked the NCC for joining the “international solidarity movement for peace” in Korea and urged the council to oppose America’s “high-handed and imprudent acts.”
The letter did not mention the North Korean government’s recent acceleration of its illegal nuclear weapons programs, which has caused alarm throughout Asia. And, as was the case with Iraq, the NCC’s self-appointed champions of peace failed to say a single word against the governments and the weapons programs that were the gravest threats to world peace.
Revealingly, the letter was dated “Year 91.” North Korea’s calendar is based on the birth year of former dictator Kim Il-Sung.