In a rare show of unity, Jewish, Moslem, Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox religious leaders have called jointly on the U.S. government to take stronger action in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in Somalia, where people are starving in a man-made famine.
The leaders gathered Tuesday to demand that the Bush administration “see to it, by whatever morally responsible means may be necessary, that relief supplies reach the people for whom they are intended in both Bosnia and Somalia.”
Through the many tens of millions of congregants represented by the umbrella organizations of each faith, the religious leaders hope to turn up pressure on the U.S. government to intervene in the Balkan and Somalian conflicts.
They designated the first Sabbath in December — this Friday for Moslems, Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians — a “National Sabbath for Prayer and Petition.”
Over this weekend, spiritual leaders will be asked to read from their pulpits “A Joint Resolution of the American People,” a document issued at the meeting.
The resolution calls on the U.S. government to approve an emergency refugee program and the funding necessary to admit up to 25,000 additional refugees from the former Yugoslavia.
It also demands that the president and other elected officials, acting “in concert with other nations where possible, alone where necessary,” redouble efforts to end the violence in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and move expeditiously through the United Nations and other international groups to intervene wherever civilians are at risk of mass death.
The meeting was the brainchild of Leonard Fein, a Jewish writer and founder of Moment magazine. It was held at the offices of the World Jewish Congress in New York.
Though united on taking stronger action, coalition members differed on whether U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Somalia should include use of military force.
Jewish participants, including Fein and Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said that military intervention should be used, if necessary, to ensure the success of humanitarian efforts.
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, chairman of the Migration and Refugee Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that while he does “not believe in military intervention,” he supports the idea of using a military presence if it is needed to set up protected areas where refugees inside Bosnia can safely survive the winter.
The National Council of Churches has not decided its position on the use of military force in these conflicts, said Jay Rock, who is in charge of interfaith relations for the group, which includes Protestant and Orthodox churches.
In the past, there has been a reluctance on the part of its member churches to support force, Rock said.
The Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, an Eastern Orthodox priest and immediate past president of the National Council, urged U.S. political leaders to help “marginalize” those Orthodox Serbs who are “committed to violence,” and to “enhance” those among the Serbian Orthodox who want to work for peace.
Jewish groups endorsing the resolution and the Sabbath of prayer and petition include the Synagogue Council of America; Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Orthodox bodies; the American Jewish Committee; American Jewish Congress; Anti-Defamation League; Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; New York Association for New Americans; and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
The national Christian signatories are the National Council of Churches, which represents 32 Protestant and Orthodox denominations, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The National Council of Mosques also endorsed the effort. Its president, Dawud Assad, was scheduled to speak at a news briefing Tuesday but did not show up.
In addition to the religious leaders, members of Sarajevo’s Jewish community were present at the meeting. Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina are getting increasingly desperate for help, said the head of Sarajevo’s Jewish community, who left his city two weeks ago and is in the United States to speak to religious and political leaders.
Ivica Ceresnjes said that while foreign aid is finding its way into the besieged city, the food and medicine is providing only one-tenth the sustenance that people require.
“People are literally starving,” he said. “Before I left I saw a man walking on the street, and he suddenly sat down and died.
“Soon you will be seeing pictures like you saw of the Warsaw Ghetto,” Ceresnjes warned. “Without even counting one bullet, we are expecting 50,000 people dead from hunger and the winter by March.”
In his own visit this week to the republics, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel visited detention camps and checked reports of human rights violations there.
During his visit to Sarajevo, which ended Monday, Wiesel proposed to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic that he meet with Serbian leaders in Paris.
Izetbegovic rejected the idea, calling the Serbian leaders “the murderers of our children” and their efforts “genocide,” according to news reports.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.