BY CHRISTINA WHITE
ON THE EVE of the largest peace protest seen in Britain for over 50 years, opponents of a war against Iraq said they were "optimistic" that conflict could be averted
As almost half a million peace activists prepared to converge on the capital. Catholics among their number said they still held out the hope that the United States and its allies would find an alternative solution to the problem of disarming Iraqi dictator Saddain Hussein.
Pat Gaffney, general secre
tary of Pax Christi UK, the international Catholic movement for peace, said she was heartened by recent developments.
She included "the very positive response given by Hans Blix, chief UN Weapons inspector, on greater access to Iraqi sites; the resistance corning from within the European Union particularly the French, Belgians and Germans, a voice of moderation within the EU, and just the massive general feeling of support from all over the cotmuy".
She said: "We are getting phone calls from people who have never been on a demon
stration before. People who just want to say no to war."
She appealed to Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush to listen to the people of Britain. She said: "We do not want war. I urge Tony Blair to reflect on the impact conflict would have on the Middle East and the humanitarian impact on thc people of Iraq."
She added: "This is consistent with what the Church is saying. The Pope is pleading for peace. People must listen to these voices of reason."
In November last year the Catholic bishops of England and Wales urged the inferno
tional community to pursue alternatives to war before it is too late".
A further statement from the bishops on the crisis is expected next week.
Jesuit Fr Frank Turner, assistant general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales with special responsibility for international affairs, said the situation was changing on a "daily basis".
Fr Turner, the chief adviser La the bishops on the Iraq crisis, said: "The bishops are waiting to hear the outcome of the UN report and the visit of Tariq Aziz to the Holy See," he explained.
"If there are material breaches then the matter will go back before the UN. A resolution for war wouldn't detemnne the position of the Chun:h but the bishops would have very great concerns about any military strike undertaken without prior UN approval."
Bishop Thomas McMahon of Brentwood and his Anglican counterpart have asked for all churches to remain open tomorrow so that people may pray for peace. Other parishes have held peace vigils.
The mass mobilisation of justice and peace groups came as President Bush told the world that the crisis had reached its "moment of truth", and that a decision on how Saddam would be disarmed would soon be made.
Meanwhile the build-up of forces in the Gulf neared completion.
In Parliament, a House of Commons Select Committee sat on Thursday to debate the humanitarian impact of a military strike.
Government Minister, and former Catholic Herald columnist, John Battle, said the human toll of war had to be assessed. "While all the talk is of military action, someone ought to be raising the question of the huinanitarian consequences and that question needs to be raised now," he said.
It is expected that tomorrow's peace rally will be attended by many Catholics though it was not clear as The Catholic Herald went to press whether or not any bishops would attend the demonstration.
Fr Daniel Campbell, assistant priest at Clifton Cathedral, said he would attend the peace march with fellow protestors from Bristol.
"We are not reactionaries but ordinary people who have a voice and a belief in peace which says no to war," he said.
The Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) this week urged world leaders to resolve the crisis peacefully. In a statement Christine Allen, CDR director, warned that the 'war on terrorism" was being seen as a war on Islam. "The US and UK governments should be striving to repair fragile international relations. They should abide hy the mles of international law that prevent them from taking unilateral action against Iraq," she said.