Mixed reaction greets bishops Afghanistan statement

By 
  • March 5, 2008

{mosimage}Wise and faithful or naive and badly informed — Canadians can’t agree on the most recent Catholic bishops’ statement on Canada’s role in Afghanistan.

“I would rather see them come out somewhat more strongly, but I think it’s a good start — and a good encouragement for Catholics to at least engage in the issue,” said Sarah Bjorknas, Vancouver Catholic Worker co-founder.

“It’s not well thought through. I don’t think it’s very clearly written,” said Foreign Affairs and Defence Institute fellow Jack Granatstein.

“We’ve spent roughly $9 billion in Afghanistan over the course of the last five or six years, and if people (Afghans) aren’t getting any benefit from it we’re clearly on the wrong track,” said Canadian Peace Alliance co-ordinator Sid Lacombe. “There’s got to be better ways to get this done. This is something that the Catholic bishops actually do notice.”

“We’re happy there is a statement,” said Deacon Steve Barringer of Catholics for Peace – Toronto.

In his role as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Archbishop James Weisgerber issued “Call For a True Peace Process in Afghanistan” Feb. 8. The statement called on the Canadian government to take positive steps to encourage peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban, clearly distinguish military operations from humanitarian aid and do more to ensure Canadian military are not implicated in torture or other illegal acts.

At press time Parliament was preparing to debate a motion which would extend the current counter-insurgency combat role to 2011. While encouraging politicians to find ways to change the focus of the Canadian mission away from military options and toward development, Weisgerber’s statement did not offer any timelines.

By focussing exclusively on timelines Parliament is missing the chance to debate whether or not military intervention in Afghanistan is working, said Lacombe.

“The longer we stay and the more Canadian soldiers and other NATO soldiers continue to fight the more we are unfortunately building resistance movements. The longer we stay the worse it’s getting,” he said.

Granatstein argues that Canada’s bishops have ignored the desires of Afghanis.

“Polls in Afghanistan demonstrate that something over 70 per cent also want NATO troops to be there, to protect them from the bad guys,” the military historian said. “Which rather suggests that peace negotiations in good faith, which is one of the things the bishops call for, is not something that the Afghan people think is very likely unless they have military protection.”

While Granatstein is dismissive of the bishops’ message, some in the peace movement are condemning it for being too accommodating to war supporters.

“It’s hardly prophetic in nature, shall we say,” said Barringer.

Barringer said Weisgerber has tried to stickhandle through a controversy which calls for the bishops to take a clear stand.

“Pleading complexity is a cop out. It’s a delaying tactic. It’s an excuse not to speak up,” he said. “It’s that kind of logic that makes dates like 2011 acceptable, which it should not be under any circumstances.”

But Bjorknas, co-ordinator of the War Resisters’ Support Campaign in Vancouver, was willing to cut the bishops a little more slack.

“From a Catholic perspective, from a Christian perspective, to support the troops is to say ‘What value do we put on their lives? What are we asking them to give them up for?’ ” she said.

“They are relying on Catholic tradition and the most current statements of leadership within the Catholic world, including Pope Benedict XVI, and trying to use those insights in the Canadian context on Afghanistan,” said John Siebert, executive director of Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo-based ecumenical think tank which concentrates on peace and disarmament for the Canadian Council of Churches.

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