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British Religious Leaders Question Moral Legitimacy of War on Iraq - 2003-02-20

Britain's two most senior churchmen, the heads of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, are questioning the moral case for war against Iraq. They say U.N. weapons inspectors should be given more time to carry out their work.

The leaders of Britain's two main Christian churches have joined forces to challenge Prime Minister Tony Blair over his claims that war on Iraq is morally justified.

Responding to last week's million-strong anti-war march in London, Mr. Blair has been vigorously making what he says is the moral case for removing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power.

The Church of England's archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Cormac Murphy-O'Connor issued a joint statement Thursday questioning the so-called moral legitimacy of the war.

They say weapons inspections should be allowed to continue, rendering war unnecessary. While the clergymen say the moral alternative to military action cannot be inaction or indifference, they urge all sides in the crisis to work through the United Nations. Another Anglican leader, the bishop-elect of Durham, Canon Tom Wright, says the church is deeply troubled about the possible humanitarian and political consequences that war would have.

"Often, there are messy solutions to messy problems, and that is the only way we can go," Canon Tom Wright said. "I do not think, however, the war in this case is the only possible solution. It seems to me quite clear that there are all sorts of other lines that can be taken."

Canon Wright warns that war would also have a negative impact on relations between the West and the Islamic world.

"It is bound to be perceived as a crusade of the West, which the Islamic nations see as the Christian West, for whatever reasons, as a crusade against them, and this will have repercussions," he said. "It is actually playing into Osama bin Laden's hands, and it is actually playing against all the good work of building relations between Christians, Muslims and others, which many of us are involved in in this country."

Prime Minister Blair is scheduled to have a private audience with Pope John Paul the Second on Saturday.

The British government has warned its nationals to leave Iraq to avoid the risk of being taken hostage. There have also been warnings of terrorist attacks in Kuwait, and Britain has warned its nationals there to leave the country. The government says families of British Embassy staff will be evacuated soon.