Catholic bishops don't sign on to Afghanistan letter

  • August 22, 2007
{mosimage}The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has declined an invitation to sign a letter from faith leaders to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Afghanistan because it doesn’t go far enough. The letter from a dozen church leaders asks Harper’s government to engage in negotiations with willing representatives of the Taliban and change the focus of Canadian operations in Afghanistan to diplomacy and aid.
Questions of “substance as well as nuance” prevented Canada’s Catholic bishops from joining with 12 Christian church leaders in signing the Aug. 14 letter to Harper, said CCCB associate general secretary Bede Hubbard.

Where the ecumenical letter lauds the international peace process for Afghanistan set up in 2004, the Catholic bishops believe the Afghanistan Compact is seriously flawed, said bishops’ spokesman Sylvain Salvas.

“It does not include anything like a meaningful peace process,” said Salvas.

 {sidebar id=2} While the bishops’ commission for social affairs wants to support a political solution based on reconciliation in Afghanistan, the bishops are worried the ecumenical letter endorses the Afghanistan Compact, which fails to establish a substantive peace process, he said.

The letter was drafted by the Canadian Council of Churches, but is not the position of the Council, which represents most Christians in Canada. Because not all 21 members of the CCC signed, it remains the position of only those 12 churches which signed the letter.

Council general secretary Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton said she did not doubt the Catholic bishops want peace and reconciliation, aided by democracy and development, for Afghanistan.

“The commitment to care for the people of Afghanistan is absolutely foundational and fundamental for all the CCC member denominations,” she said.

“After discussion and reflection, it was agreed that the CCCB not sign with the various other church leaders — in part because of recognition of the honest differences of opinion on this important question among Catholics and all Canadians,” said Hubbard in an e-mail. “But even more, because the bishops wish it to be especially evident at this particular moment that their primary role is to use this occasion to teach the principles of Catholic social justice doctrine. There is concern that pastoral teaching on this question could be made more  difficult at the moment if they were to become involved in the more technical aspects of the debate on Afghanistan.”

“I don’t want to interpret their lack of action on this (ecumenical letter) as a lack of action altogether,” said Catholics for Peace — Toronto spokesman Steve Barringer. “My first question would be, if you’re not signing that what are you doing?”

The Toronto deacon and peace activist said holding back on the ecumenical statement puts the ball in the bishops’ court.

“I have not seen a lot coming out of the CCCB. We should be a leading voice in this area, not one sitting back being too cautious about what we say,” said Barringer.

The letter from church leaders was prompted in part by the involvement of Canadian Forces chaplains, and the increasing death toll among Canadian soldiers. Sixty-seven Canadian soldiers have been killed in action in Afghanistan since 2002. The latest was Pte. Simon Longtin, killed by a roadside bomb Aug. 19.

“The Canadian Forces should focus on enhancing protection of vulnerable Afghans rather than on aggressive engagement with insurgents in areas where the local population is suspicious or alienated from the central government,” said the faith leaders.

The group also urged Harper to decouple development aid from military operations.

“Aid must be delivered without compromising internationally recognized principles of development and humanitarian assistance,” said the letter.

The bishops and moderators who signed the letter also urge the government to spend more on schools, wells, roads and other development projects.

“We believe a significant shift in Canada’s concentration of financial resources toward long-term human development is necessary,” they said.

The letter also applauds the government for recent increases in Canada’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. It urges “a strong truth and reconciliation approach,” including “discussions with Taliban insurgents willing to participate in peaceful negotiations.”

The bishops and other leaders who signed the letter represent the Armenian Holy Apostolic Church, the Quakers, the Disciples of Christ, the Christian Reformed Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Mennonites, the Polish Catholic Church in Canada, the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in America, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the United Church.

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