BY LUKE COPPEN
BRITAIN and the United States must produce "incontrovertible" evidence that Saddam Hussein poses a threat to the West before they launch a new offensive against Iraq, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has said.
In his most forthright comments yet on the escalating Middle East crisis, the Cardinal said the British people would not support a pre-emptive strike unless Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush stated publicly the case for declaring war.
His comments came shortly before President Bush and Mr Blair held talks on Iraq last weekend at which they arrived at their "shared analysis".
The Prime Minister has promised that Britain would be alongside the Americans "when the shooting starts".
Writing in The Times, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said there were good reasons why Britain and America regarded the regime in Iraq as a threat to world security.
"President Saddam Hussein has committed numerous atrocities against his own people," he wrote.
"He has persistently refused to comply with the UN Security Council resolutions which require Iraq to surrender its weapons of mass destruction. There have been suggestions, but no proof to date, that he is intent on acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
But in order to win the Church's blessing, the Cardinal said a pre-emptive strike had to meet stringent criteria, the most important of which was that "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated".
"A war in Iraq would cause great destruction and suffering. It would also entail grave consequences for our own country and for the world.
"There is reason to be concerned that military intervention would set the Arab world against the West, and undermine efforts directed at peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.
"The Prime Minister has now promised to publish evidence to support his growing conviction that the threat posed by Iraq is both grave and imminent, and that the regime itself must change or be changed. • "Without persuasive, preferably incontrovertible, evidence of this kind it is difficult to see how concerns in this country and abroad about this course of action could be allayed."
Britain and the US must also answer other questions, the Cardinal said, such as "is military action intended to neutralise a threat, to effect regime change or both?"; "will military intervention stabilise of destabilise the region?" and "does it have the endorsement of the UN Security Council and, in the case of Britain, of the European Union?"
The Cardinal's questions reflected growing unease among Christian leaders about the threat of war.
Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Vatican secretary for relations with states, made his view known in an interview on Tuesday in the
Italian newspaper, Avvenire.
"If the international community, inspired in the resolutions of the UN Security Council, judges the recourse to force opportune and proportionate, this must happen with a resolution adopted in the framework of the UN itself," the archbishop said.
The UN, he said, should decide only after evaluating the consequences of military action on the civilian population, the countries of the region, and the world scene, because otherwise it would be "the law of the most powerful".
On Thursday last week, the incoming Anglican leader, Dr Rowan Williams, expressed hope that the West's problems with Iraq could be solved without war.
He said: "I think there are still choices to be made, and I think, other people are looking for evidence to come in. I am hoping that there may be a peaceful solution; I don't think that [war] is inevitable."
The international Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, which last month delivered a petition to the Prime Minister opposing war, welcomed the Cardinal's comments as an important contribution.
"One of the important things he does is weigh up military responses to Iraq in a much broader international context — that of world poverty," said Pat Gaffney, UK general secretary.
In his article, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor argued that poverty was the main problem underlying the crisis. "By pouring almost inconceivably massive resources into preparing for, and then prosecuting, military conflict, we inevitably divert funds from the war on world poverty. By so doing, we further endanger the fragile lives of millions of people, over and above those who become victims of conflict itself," he said.
Other British bishops have joined the Cardinal in his stand against war. Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood said a preemptive strike would be "wicked and foolhardy".
"It would be wicked in the sense that it goes against Article 2 of the UN Charter. No matter how evil Iraq's armaments are, unless and until the Iraqi government itself launches an attack it is wrong for us to do so," he said.
Bishop McMahon is one of six Catholics bishops who have so far signed Pax Christi's petition. The other signatories are Bishop Christopher Budd of Plymouth, Bishop Kevin McDonald of Northampton, Bishop Malcolm McMahon of Nottingham, Bishop Edwin Regan of Wrexham and Bishop Maurice Taylor of Galloway.
Fr Andreas Abouna, chaplain to London's Iraqi Catholics, praised Church leaders for speaking out against war. The priest, who was in Baghdad during the 1990 Gulf War, said his community feared the consequences of an American-led attack.
"They are worried about what is going to happen and that is why every Sunday we are praying for peace and against war," he said.
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