Religious leaders encourage Obama to 'move beyond' war in Iraq, Syria

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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On Wednesday, a group of 53 religious leaders and thinkers, including many Catholics, released an open letter to President Barack Obama urging him to "move us beyond the ways of war" and "break the cycle of violent intervention" in addressing chaos in northern Iraq.

"While the dire plight of Iraqi civilians should compel the international community to respond in some way," the letter read, "U.S. military action is not the answer."

The call to find alternatives to military action comes as the Obama administration is considering expanding airstrikes into Syria. The letter effectively challenges the idea that lethal military force is necessary to stop the advance of the Islamic State.

It suggests eight alternative approaches:

  • "Stop U.S. bombing in Iraq to prevent bloodshed, instability and the accumulation of grievances that contribute to the global justification for the Islamic State's existence among its supporters."
  • "Provide robust humanitarian assistance to those who are fleeing the violence."
  • "Engage with the UN, all Iraqi political and religious leaders, and others in the international community on diplomatic efforts for a lasting political solution for Iraq," and "work for a political settlement to the crisis in Syria."
  • "Support community-based nonviolent resistance strategies to transform the conflict and meet the deeper need and grievances of all parties."
  • "Strengthen financial sanctions against armed actors in the region by working through the UN Security Council."
  • "Bring in and significantly invest in professionally trained unarmed civilian protection organizations to assist and offer some buffer for displaced persons and refugees, both for this conflict in collaboration with Iraqi's and for future conflicts."
  • "Call for and uphold an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict."
  • "Support Iraqi civil society efforts to build peace, reconciliation, and accountability at the community level."

Where some have seen Pope Francis' cautious remarks on the need to "stop the unjust aggressor" as a kind of tacit but highly qualified endorsement of military force, the signers of the letter appear to interpret his words in the other direction.

"We understand and deeply share the desire to protect people, especially civilians," the letter reads, then continues:

However, even when tactics of violent force yield a short term displacement of the adversary's violence, such violence toward armed actors is often self-perpetuating, as the retributive violence that flares up in response will only propitiate more armed intervention in a tit-for-tat escalation without addressing the root causes of the conflict. We see this over and over again. It is not "necessary" to continue down this road of self-destruction, as Pope Francis called the hostilities of war the "suicide of humanity."

Among the Catholics signing the letter are Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network; Gerry G. Lee, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns; Sr. Patricia Chappell, executive director of Pax Christi USA; Eli McCarthy, director of justice and peace for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men; St. Joseph Sr. Janet Mock, executive director of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious; a number of Catholic university professors; and members of religious orders' justice and peace ministry teams.

Read the full letter and see its list of signers:


[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter: @VinRotondaro.]

A version of this story appeared in the Sept 12-25, 2014 print issue under the headline: Religious leaders encourage Obama to move beyond war.

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