As President Barack Obama prepares to present his case for launching military strikes on Syria to the American people, and behind-the-scenes negotiations to get Syria to surrender its chemical weapons continue, United Church of Christ executives are joining other faith leaders in a continued push for prayer and diplomacy.
Three officers from the UCC are among the 41 signatories in a letter to members of Congress on Monday, Sept. 9, pleading that they vote against any military action in Syria, now 30 months deep in a deadly civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, the Rev. M Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. James A. Moos, executive minister of the UCC’s Wider Church Ministries, all signed the letter. The Rev. Sharon Watkins and the Rev. Julia Brown of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a communion partner of the UCC, also signed on.
"With the Congressional debate scheduled to take place this week, there is much concern and anxiety in the region," said Peter Makari, area executive of the Middle East and Europe for WCM. "A military strike would exacerbate the crisis with more killing and injury; increased movement of people beyond the refugees and internally displaced already affected by the conflict; and no clear outcome. The Syrian people simply want hope for resolution for the two-and-a-half year old crisis, and an end to this nightmare."
The Obama administration determined that the Syrian government crossed a line with its use of chemical weapons against its own people in an attack that killed approximately 1,500 civilians — including children. UCC leaders agree with the global community in condemning the use of chemical weapons in killing innocent civilians, and that the use of those weapons violates international law and requires those responsible to be brought to justice.
The letter from faith leaders is calling for a political settlement — encouraging the president and members of Congress to use diplomacy to lead the international community to prevent any more use of chemical weapons in Syria, de-escalate the violence and refrain from military action or support.
President Obama is scheduled to address the American people from the Oval Office on Tuesday evening, Sept. 10. The Syrian government early Tuesday morning indicated it was willing to accept a Russian government suggestion that Syria place all its chemical weapons under international control in an effort to avoid a U.S. military strike – though it’s possible that might not be enough to stop the U.S. from taking action.
"This suggestion is an example of creative alternatives needed to resolve this crisis. More proposals are needed," said the Rev. Mike Neuroth, international policy advocate for the UCC. "We require political courage and creativity in order to explore and implement real alternatives. I believe this will only come if people of faith and conscience across the U.S. express their own moral courage and creativity by calling for and imagining alternatives to military strikes. I pray that in the coming days more alternatives will surface, and the drumbeat toward war will be drowned by the feet of people marching in the street for peace."
The Syrian Civil War started as a rebellion against Prime Minister Bashir al-Assad's government in March 2011. So far 4 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, 1.7 million have fled to nearby Middle East countries for safety and 100,000 lives have been lost in the fighting.
Global Ministries – the joint ministry between Wider Church Ministries and the Disciples’ Overseas Ministries – has been active in supporting humanitarian relief efforts through several Middle Eastern partners. UCC and Disciples members are encouraged to support such work by their contributions to Syria relief through One Great Hour of Sharing.
Other leaders within the UCC have reached out to express their opinions on the Syrian crisis.
Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a theologian at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote for the Washington Post on 10 other actions besides bombing Syria worth consideration. In The Capital Times, the Rev. Phil Haslanger, pastor of Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis., outlines his belief that faith communities must go the extra mile past opposing the bombing of Syria.
Even public opinion would indicate that a majority of U.S. citizens, about 7 in 10 according to a CNN/ORC poll, are against authorizing military action against Syria.
Here is the faith leaders’ message to Congress, in its entirety [emphasis is original]:
Dear Member of Congress,
As leaders of faith-based organizations, we are writing to urge you to vote against any authorization for the use of military force in Syria. While we unequivocally condemn any use of chemical weapons along with indiscriminate killing of civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law, military strikes are not the answer.
Rather than bringing an end to the violence that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, U.S. military strikes threaten to widen the vicious civil war in Syria and undermine prospects to de-escalate the violence and eventually reach a just negotiated settlement, in which all actors are held accountable for crimes committed.
All of us recognize the challenge of the present moment in the midst of this ongoing tragedy. However, this is not a choice between military action and "doing nothing," a frame which again is being used to legitimate violence. Rather than yielding to the temptation to fuel the fire with more violence, we see an opportunity for the U.S. to leverage the full weight of its diplomatic influence and resources to advance a just, negotiated settlement that includes all internal and external parties to the conflict.
Therefore, we encourage Congress and the President to support the following actions:
1. Lead international diplomatic efforts to prevent further use of chemical weapons: Governments around the world—including Iran and Russia—have condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and the U.S. should work to direct this international resolve toward decisive diplomatic action.
2. De-escalate the violence: Refrain from providing military support to the opposition and press Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey to do the same, while continuing to call on Russia and Iran to cease military support for the Syrian government. Increasing violence in order to "punish," "send a message," or gain military advantage, in fact makes negotiations less likely to result in a durable democracy, much less a just peace.
3. Pursue a political settlement with all stakeholders of the conflict: We must signal to the world the urgency of advancing a political settlement that seeks to end the violence and ensure accountability. Negotiations should include key civil society nonviolent actors and include determination of broader accountability mechanisms.
We urge you to oppose authorization for the use of military force in Syria and instead to consider seriously these alternatives. You are in our prayers
(Letter distributed to members of Congress by Friends Committee on National Legislation)