A vigorous American church debate is breaking out on Iraq policy, with the Southern Baptist Convention's chief social-issues spokesman saying there's just cause to remove Saddam Hussein and leaders in the United Methodist Church and other faiths warning against armed conflict.

The Southern Baptist official, the Rev. Richard Land of Nashville, Tenn., said Monday through the denomination's Baptist Press service that Saddam is developing weapons of mass destruction "at breakneck speed.

Land contended that war against Iraq would be defensive due to the future "human cost of not taking Hussein out and removing his government." He said the purpose would be to aid Iraq and its people, not to conquer or destroy the nation. Military action should be a last resort, he said, but Saddam's history shows he is an "international outlaw beyond the reach of all international sanctions." Other evangelical leaders have also supported President Bush.

On the other side is Jim Winkler, of Washington, D.C., Land's counterpart in the United Methodist Church. He has accused the Bush administration of "unprecedented disregard for democratic ideals" and "a major and dangerous change" in U.S. policy by favoring pre-emptive warfare.

Winkler's Aug. 30 statement said no member state of the United Nations "has the right to take unilateral military action without the approval of the U.N. Security Council" and U.S. strikes without such approval would violate international law.

Noting that both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are United Methodists, Winkler said the denomination "categorically opposes interventions by more powerful nations against weaker ones" and believes a nation's first duty is to resolve every dispute by peaceful means.

The Southern Baptists and United Methodists are the nation's two largest Protestant groups. American leaders of the nation's biggest denomination, the Roman Catholic Church, have not yet addressed the current crisis.

The U.S. bishops' international policy committee urged peaceful methods in dealing with Iraq during the late 1990s. But last November, in the context of Afghanistan, the bishops overwhelmingly supported the United States' right to use military force against terrorists. They said it should be part of a broader foreign policy aimed at alleviating poverty and protecting human rights.

The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, said last week the United States should pursue diplomacy because military action would cost Iraqi and American lives, alienate allies and destabilize the Middle East.

The governing Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, which includes officials from many U.S. Protestant and Orthodox denominations and the National Council of Churches, also has taken an anti-war stance. Last week, the Central Committee reiterated its 1991 position that "no nation or group of nations is entitled to prosecute vengeance against another," and no single nation is entitled to take action that causes devastation and massive suffering.

The committee called on the United States "to desist from any military threats against Iraq" and any plans for military action, and urged other nations to resist pressure to join a campaign "under the pretext of the 'war on terrorism."'

Richard Cizik, the National Association of Evangelicals' vice president for government affairs, said in a forum on the Web site for the magazine Christianity Today that an attack is justified, but Congress needs to ratify the move and support from a coalition of allies would show proper authority for such action.

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