Bishops statement on Afghanistan expected soon

  • January 3, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Canada’s Catholic bishops may have something to say about Canada’s role in Afghanistan before Parliament debates the issue in March.

The bishops have been under pressure to say something about Canada’s largest commitment of fighting troops since the Korean War, and have studied the issue through the fall. Catholics for Peace — Toronto, an affiliate of Pax Christi, the official peace movement of the Catholic Church worldwide, issued an open letter Dec. 14 demanding a statement from the bishops on the morality of the war effort.

“The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ silence on this issue is deafening,” said the letter signed by Deacon Stephen Barringer, one of the founders of Catholics for Peace.

In August the Catholic bishops declined an invitation to sign onto an ecumenical letter from church leaders concerning Afghanistan. Twelve national churches, members of the Canadian Council of Churches, signed the letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling for negotiations with willing Taliban representatives, a greater emphasis on development and less time and money to be spent on finding and killing insurgent fighters in the country’s south.

Since then, the Catholic bishops’ conference has produced two background papers on the issue. The first it passed on to the Vatican secretary of state when a group of Canadian bishops were in Rome seeking the Vatican’s position on Afghanistan, among other things. So far, the Vatican has made no statement about the international military presence in Afghanistan.

The second CCCB backgrounder on Afghanistan was the subject of discussion at a Dec. 11 and 12 meeting of the bishops’ social affairs commission. The commission has passed the background paper along with recommendations to the bishops’ executive committee. The executive committee meets Jan. 30 and 31, and CCCB President Archbishop James Wiesgerber believes the bishops may be ready to speak on the issue before Parliament officially takes up the issue in March.

“I would hope that we would have a clear statement,” Wiesgerber told The Catholic Register.

If the bishops can issue a statement at the end of January there’s a good chance they will be part of a vigourous national debate, said Polaris Institute defence analyst Steve Staples.

“The timing would be very good. The debate is going to come to a head,” said Staples from Ottawa.

Though an early election may forestall a debate in Parliament, the Manley Panel exploring options for Canada in Afghanistan beyond February 2009 will issue its report at the end of January or beginning of February. Staples expects that Afghanistan will be prominent in the coming election campaign.

The government announced its intention to keep troops in Afghanistan until at least 2011 in the October throne speech.

“The debate sorely needs some rational, clear thinking,” said Staples. “It needs to rise above the partisan nature of the debate we’ve seen lately, with various epithets thrown about. The church leaders would be able to elevate that debate.”

Barringer said Catholics for Peace was inspired to write to the bishops asking them to speak up on Afghanistan because the CCCB Christmas message failed to mention peace. That seemed bizarre for a nation at war, Barringer said.

“We had really hoped for even a simple message of peace — the fact that war is not good — at Christmastime,” he said.

Catholics for Peace is not telling the bishops what position to take, Barringer said.

“I don’t want to be telling them what to say right now, because hopefully they know. They’re the bishops,” he said.

Barringer, however, finds the prayers in support of the troops on the CCCB web site blind to the violence inherent in the Afghanistan mission.

“This idea of supporting our troops — it’s one thing to pray for their safety in battle, it’s another thing to pray for their success as peacekeepers when what that means when somebody is holding a gun is that they’re going to shoot somebody,” said Barringer. “It’s staying away from the basic issue, which is that modern war is an immoral thing.”

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