Criticism of War on Terror Dominates Interfaith Meeting: At Sant'Egidio's Annual Summit of World Religious Leaders, Usual Politeness Gives Way to Passions Stirred by U.S. Foreign Policy. (World)

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If there's a stock criticism of the summit of world religious leaders hosted each year by Sant'Egidio, a lay Catholic movement famed for conflict resolution and promotion of human rights, it's usually that everyone is too polite. The hundreds of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Shintoists and others who show up, unflappably committed to dialogue, often seem to have more in common with each other than with hardliners in their own traditions.

So the strong discontent with post-Sept. 11 American foreign policy voiced at this year's summit was especially striking. Good manners, it appears, stop where the "war on terror" is concerned.

Also striking was the fact that some of the criticism, especially on a possible war with Iraq, came from Vatican officials who in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 seemed more tolerant of America's use of force.

A characteristic scene unfolded at a packed Sept. 2 session titled "After Sept. 11: Is a Conflict of Civilizations Inevitable?" During the question period, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Ramzi Garmo of Tehran, Iran, threw down a gauntlet.

"If Sept. 11 had happened anywhere else, would it have had the same impact?" Garmo asked. "Take Iraq as an example. Hundreds of thousands have died because one very powerful nation wants the embargo to continue. What is the difference between Iraqi children and the victims in New York? Is American blood worth more than blood in other countries?"

Garmo drew strong applause.

Later, in an interview with NCR, he added: "On Sept. 11, planes became bombs in New York, and we call this terrorism. In Iraq, in Afghanistan, planes bring bombs upon innocent people. This is not terrorism?"

The Sant'Egidio meeting, titled overall "Religion and Cultures: Between Conflict and Dialogue," took place Sept. 1-3. It brought together some 400 religious leaders, including 12 cardinals and 30 bishops and abbots, 18 representatives of Orthodoxy, 18 Protestants, 9 representatives of Judaism, 28 Muslims, 13 adherents of Asian religions (from India, Japan, Singapore and Sri Lanka), plus 57 representatives of international organizations and 19 diplomats.

To be sure, participants emphasized that rights and wrongs exist on all sides, and that nothing can justify terrorism. Moreover, some degree of anti-American posturing was to be expected, in part from religious leaders representing countries where authoritarian regimes back home were watching, in part from European leftists who gravitate to Sant'Egidio, for whom anti-Americanism is often an automatic response.

It was nonetheless clear that American policy choices have stirred passions.

"The events that occurred in New York and Washington, although horrible, are not a reason for violating the safety of other nations or communities," said Ayatollah Mohamed Ali Taskhiri of Iran. "Such atrocities as those exerted by the U.S. administration in Afghanistan, whose people were the victims of the Taliban regime, are not reasonable."

The U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson, had a chance to deliver a strong defense of American policy in a panel on reconciliation Sept. 3. Nicholson presented President George Bush's post-Sept. 11 policy as a model "of how justice and reconciliation can conquer vengeance and anger."

"The president did not call for revenge or incite people to hatred," Nicholson said. "He reminded Americans that goodness, remembrance and love have no end." Then, Nicholson said, Bush built a "mighty coalition" of 174 nations to share military campaigns, law-enforcement efforts and humanitarian initiatives to combat terrorism.

Citing Bosnia and Kosovo, Sudan, the India/Pakistan conflict, and Korea as examples of recent American successes in efforts to promote peace, Nicholson said the United States has a "complete toolbox" of military, political and economic instruments.

To judge from this gathering, however, there seems doubt in some quarters about the uses to which those tools are being put. …