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An ethical enigma called Afghanistan

It used to be that the United Church was almost automatically anti-war. Times have changed.

By Mike Milne

Before, during and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, The United Church of Canada did not mince words: the war was wrong, and the occupying forces should leave. But the church has been noticeably more restrained about Canada's combat role in the other great international conflict of the post-9/11 era: Afghanistan. Apart from its recent participation in two Canadian Council of Churches initiatives, the church has been silent.

Does having Canadian sons and daughters in harm's way temper the church's usually loud and clear call for peace? Or do the global changes unleashed by 9/11 demand new ways of responding faithfully to conflict? Afghanistan marks a historic departure from Canada's traditional role as peacekeeper. It may also mark a departure from the United Church's traditional role as an outspoken opponent of war.

The church's slow response on Afghanistan is partly tied to the way in which the Canadian role there has evolved. The commitment began in the wake of 9/11, with a few dozen elite soldiers sent to work alongside U.S. forces helping Afghan rebels to defeat the Taliban regime and close al-Qaeda terrorist bases. Within three years, Afghanistan was holding its first post-Taliban national elections, and Canada had a force of 1,900 working on reconstruction projects, mostly in the Kabul area. In early 2006, most of the Canadian troops moved south to the much more dangerous Kandahar region and began actively engaging the Taliban as well as delivering aid and helping the Afghan government assert its authority.

Unlike the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Afghanistan operation has NATO leadership, a United Nations mandate and an agreement with the Afghan government. The internationally accepted legitimacy of the operation certainly influences the United Church approach. Still, the operation is nothing like Canadian peacekeeping missions of the past, with no ceasefire or peace settlement to enforce. Officially, the Canadian Forces calls it "nation building." By the end of August, the effort had claimed 70

Canadian lives and had left another 275 wounded. The Canadian casualty rate was three times higher than any of the other participating NATO countries. "It's always harder to take a position after the fact than beforehand," says Richard Chambers, a General Council staff person who represents the United Church on the Canadian Council of Churches' commission on justice and peace. "(Canada) kind of got into Afghanistan, and the question came back to the church -- should we be there? But we were there already, with chaplains on the ground."

Those chaplains are involved in informal peace-making initiatives -- meeting local religious leaders to encourage mutual understanding and to quash Taliban talk of a religious agenda behind Western military action -- but their primary job is providing pastoral care for Canadian troops.

Instead of working out a policy and taking a position on its own, Chambers says the church decided to work ecumenically, through the Canadian Council of Churches.. The first step in that process came last January when Project Ploughshares, a church-supported peace and justice coalition that is part of the CCC's network, held a forum on Afghanistan. About 20 church and coalition representatives joined Afghan-Canadians to discuss opposition to the Afghan mission, the lack of real security and jobs in Afghanistan, cross-border problems with Pakistan, a Canadian policy some believe is too closely tied to U.S. actions, and frustration over religious extremism.

Those discussions and subsequent talks among churches led to two letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The first, sent in June, was approved by all 21 member-churches of the Council and suggested that Canada refocus its efforts on "second-track diplomacy engaging civil society and religious networks" and protection of civilians. The second, sent in August, was more detailed but only had the signatures of 12 church leaders, including United Church Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano.

The August letter asks Harper to look at ways Canada could support reconciliation, foster human rights and good governance, encourage development and create security. It urges peace talks with Taliban insurgents, more assistance for humans rights work, more representation for the Pashtun people who live in the most conflicted area and a shift to long-term development assistance. It also voices worries about the "militarization of aid" when soldiers deliver assistance, and calls for armed forces to "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." It does not call for the withdrawal of Canadian troops.

However, it does draw a clear line between the churches and the Department of National Defence, which asserts that negotiation with the Taliban and al-Qaeda "is not an option." Council officials admit it's been harder to speak out on Afghanistan. "It's easy for us to be out on the streets and say no to something that we perceived the Americans are taking leadership in," says Rev. Karen Hamilton, a United Church minister and CCC general secretary. "It's harder to speak out" around Afghanistan.

Council president Rev. James Christie, also a United Church minister, says people intuitively want to support the troops. "When men and women die in uniform, United Church and other pastors are doing services, walking with the family and trying to provide pastoral care, and that creates a certain kind of dynamic. But that shouldn't prevent us from talking about the policy."

Analyzing policy and speaking with one voice is what earns churches respect these days, says Rev. John Barker, minister of First United in Swift Current, Sask., and a board member of Project Ploughshares. "I really think we need to do our homework. . . . We're marginalized now, governments can ignore us. But collectively, the religious community as an informed moral voice can make a difference."

Still, the church leaders' position isn't winning many converts among seasoned peace activists. One of the most prominent, United Church member Allen Slater of Lakeside, Ont., insists that "armies don't make peace." For Slater, who visited Iraq four times between 2003 and 2006 with Christian Peacemaker Teams, the answer to the Afghanistan question is simple: "This thing is not working and it's not going to. That's what the United Church should say. So let's bring the troops home."

With 2009 set as the nearest deadline for withdrawal of Canadian troops, and with the prime minister promising that any extension of the mission will go to a vote in Parliament, discussions about Afghanistan are likely to gather momentum in church basements and among decision-makers. Many congregations have already signed up to receive a 46-page resource designed by the United Church to inform these discussions. The resource draws heavily on a six-year-old UN-commissioned report that examines conditions under which a nation or groups of nations might intervene in what would otherwise be the internal business of another country. It was written in the wake of such international human rights failures as the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the 1995 massacre of Bosnian boys and men at Srebrenica and the ongoing crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan. Former federal cabinet minister, University of Winnipeg president and longtime United Church member Lloyd Axworthy co-chaired the commission that produced it.

The United Church resource states its assumption "that as Christians we have an ethical responsibility to protect vulnerable people" and asks when "lethal force" should be used. It cites "genocide, ethnic cleansing, forced expulsion, mass rape, other crimes against humanity, and war crimes" as good reasons for intervention. It also suggests Afghanistan might not fit the bill, partly because of questions about U.S. motivation for the invasion. Church officials hope that discussions inspired by the resource will inform the United Church's position on Afghanistan and set a foundation for how the church responds to future conflicts.

Ultimately, the people in the pews may find themselves struggling with questions that go deeper than the pros and cons of Canada having troops on the ground in a faraway and very different country.

James Christie doesn't attempt to speak for all the members of the Canadian Council of Churches, but points out a common challenge. Canada's role in Afghanistan, he says, forces Christians to ask, How do we now hold God's people in our hearts when we realize God's people are more than us?

"They're bigger issues now than we've faced before. We have been limited in our vision of God's purpose in that we've always associated our cause with the cause of righteousness. Sometimes it is and sometimes the answer is not so simple."

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