• New conflict 'will kill thousands of civilians' • US and British attack on Iraq must be the 'last resort'
BY SIMON CALDWELL
BRITAIN and America have a "moral responsibility" to avoid a new war against Iraq, according to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales.
In a four-point statement issued at the end of the bishops' autumn meeting in Leeds, the bishops said a new conflict would result in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi civilians. They said any attack on Saddam Hussein must come only as a "last resort".
Instead, they expressed their hopes that Iraq would disarm in compliance with the demands of the United Nations Security Council.
The bishops said that in return, the West must then drop its decade of sanctions against Iraq and help it to reintegrate into the international * community. The bishops' statement said: "War is a route from which there is no return. The need to avoid war is a cornerstone of Christian teaching. The UK and the USA are currently preparing to send their armed forces into war. If there is war, as well as military casualties on both sides thousands of Iraqi civilians will die. It is our moral responsibility to avoid this war unless, in the face of a grave and imminent threat, there is no other possible means to achieve the just end of disarming Iraq.
"Military action can only be a last resort. We recognise UN Security Council Resolution 1441 as the legitimate expression of the international community's collective determination to disarm Iraq. At the same time we strongly urge the international community to pursue alternatives to war before it is too late.
"Sanctions have not worked. They have imposed a decade of misery on ordinary people whilst allowing an exploitative regime to sustain itself in power. It is time to find a policy that offers Iraq a positive incentive to comply with the demands of the Security Council. In return for genuine disarmament, monitored and verified by the UN, the lifting of comprehensive sanctions, and the reintegration into the international community, is the route that must now be explored.
"Grief for those killed and wounded in war will be the more agonising if their loss results from an armed conflict that could have been avoided without compromise to the common good. We pray that both sides step back from the brink of war. Along with our fellow bishops in other countries we ask our Catholic community and all people of faith to join us in this prayer."
The statement, published last Friday, came just days after the US bishops said a new war would bring "incalculable costs for a civilian population that has suffered so much from war, repression and a debilitating embargo".
"We pray for President Bush and other world leaders that they will find the will and the ways to step back from the brink of war with Iraq and work for a peace that is just and enduring," the US bishops said in a statement.
"We urge them to work with others to fashion an effective global response to Iraq's threats that recognises legitimate self-defence and conforms to traditional moral limits on the use of military force." At a press conference in London on Monday, Jesuit Fr Frank Turner, assistant general secretary of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales with special responsibility for international affairs, said the position of bishops around the world on a new war was consistently cautious. "Certainly, we are in touch with bishops' conference colleagues in the States, Germany, France and so on," he said. "We do work together to ensure that we are not contradicting each other."
He said the bishops had spent about four hours preparing their statement, which he stressed was "conditional" because it was an expression of moral principles that must underpin any just war.
"The decision is not ours in the end," he said. "We don't have all the military information. "The bishops are not absolute pacifists. There are conditions under which war would be the lesser evil. The bishops are not satisfied that those conditions apply now."
Catholic theologian George Weigel, the Pope's biographer, agreed that a decision to go to war was ultimately a political one. But writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, he argued that a strike against Saddam could already be justi
fled under Catholic teaching, even without a mandate from the UN.
"Within the classic just war tradition and at the level of moral principle, there are instances when it is not only right to 'go first' but 'going first' may be morally obligatory," he wrote. "Iraq may well pose one of those instances."
Daniel Johnson: Page 9 Bishops' conference: Page 3