Going further than most North American Christian organizations, a coalition of top Canadian church leaders is urging an end to what it calls the "highly regrettable" bombing of Afghanistan.

"The essential goal of preventing further terrorist attacks ... will not be accomplished through military attacks on Afghanistan," said the influential religious lobby, which includes senior officials of the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican, Mennonite and Lutheran denominations.

Most other ecumenical groups in Canada and the United States have not gone so far as the Christian leaders whom, under the auspices of the Canadian Council of Churches, have called for the United States, Britain and Canada to "demilitarize" the battle against terrorism.

The Christian leaders' opposition to the U.S.-led attacks against Afghanistan reflects the viewpoint of Canadian Muslim organizations and, at a national political level, only the left-wing New Democratic Party, which has the support of about 10 percent of the Canadian population.

After the bombing of Afghanistan began, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada restricted itself in a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien to saying it was "praying for peace" and urging a "just response (that is) measured and transparent."

EFC spokesman Bruce Clemenger, however, would not criticize the Canadian Council of Churches' position, saying only that his umbrella organization represents 2.5 million Canadians from 27 conservative denominations, some of which would oppose the air attacks on Afghanistan and others which would support them as just.

The Rev. Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the United States' National Council of Churches, which is a sister organization to the Canadian Council of Churches, cautiously welcomed the Canadian anti-war message.

"I don't think it's destructive for the aggressive peaceful voices to be heard," said Edgar, whose organization represents 36 mainline Christian and Orthodox denominations.

Edgar said the Canadian spiritual leaders' stand might have been different if Canada had been directly attacked by terrorists.

"I don't reject the words the Canadian Christians and some Christian groups in Europe are voicing," Edgar said in a Thursday (Oct. 18) interview from New York, adding that his organization will not be releasing a statement dealing directly with the bombing, but will leave that up to individual members.

"We think these voices have to be heard as words of restraint. And sometimes when those words come from others (who are not from the United States) they can be very helpful."

The National Council of Churches, before the bombing began, helped organize an interfaith statement, "Deny Them Their Victory," signed by more than 3,500 Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and others. It says only that "we must not, out of anger and vengeance, indiscriminately retaliate."

But the Canadian church leaders, in their letter released this week to members of parliament in Ottawa, argued the current military campaign will lead to "widespread damage on an already mutilated Afghanistan, without the successful apprehension of the accused."

The Christian leaders detailed how the United States, Britain and Canada should emphasize nonmilitary options to fight terrorism -- including greater international cooperation, operating a police action under the guidelines of the United Nations Security Council, increasing domestic security in the West and taking part in direct discussions to deliver terrorists to trial.

Their letter is signed by 13 Canadian leaders who directly or indirectly represent more than 20 million Canadian Christians. Canada has a population of 30 million.

The signatories include Monsignor Peter Schonenbach, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Rev. Marion Pardy, moderator of the United Church of Canada; Janet Somerville, general secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, and the Rev. Ray Schultz, national bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada.

The Christian leaders' opposition to the bombing of Afghanistan also echoes the position of the Canadian Islamic Congress, which said the attacks could destabilize many countries and victimize more innocent people. Congress spokesman Mohammed Elmasry said most of Canada's roughly 600,000 Muslims oppose the bombing.

The New Democratic Party is the only major national Canadian political party opposing the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan, with national leader Alexa McDonough saying, "We simply cannot choose retaliation and military strikes over international justice."

The Canadian Council of Church's Somerville said Thursday it's difficult to assess how much influence the leaders' anti-bombing statement will have on politicians.

But Somerville said the letter is already having a strong impact on Canadian religious leaders, "thoughtful" church members and in strengthening the alternative-to-war lobby in the larger society.

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