Catholic archbishop backs German Protestant criticism of Afghan strategy

By Ecumenical News International
January 20, 2010

A Roman Catholic archbishop in Germany has given support to the country's senior Protestant bishop, Margot Kässmann, in her criticism of Germany's military strategy in Afghanistan - writes Anli Serfontein.

Kässmann has faced criticism from politicians since a New Year sermon in which she said that weapons were, "clearly not creating peace" in Afghanistan, and called for alternatives to the use of military force there.

Reinhard Marx, the Catholic archbishop of Munich and Freising, was reported by the Bavarian broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk as saying that Kässmann had started an important debate about Germany's role in Afghanistan.

"Maybe the Afghanistan [military] mission is no longer where at the beginning we would have liked it to be," said Marx on 17 January 2010.

Germany has more than 4000 troops in Afghanistan, and this is the third-largest contingent in the NATO-led international force there. The German presence in the country has faced criticism, particularly since a German-ordered air strike in September led to the deaths of civilians.

Kässmann was elected in October 2009 to lead the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), the country's main Protestant grouping.

In an interview with Germany's Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in December, before her New Year sermon, Kässmann said, "Even by the broadest standards of the Evangelical Church in Germany, this war cannot be justified. Therefore, the armed conflict must be ended as soon as possible."

She urged for a "clear exit strategy" but warned against an "over hasty" withdrawal of troops.

Recent opinion polls in Germany have shown an estimated 71 percent of people against the German army's operations in Afghanistan.

Still, Germany's development minister, Dirk Niebel, has described his country's deployment in Afghanistan as being necessary, and said he did not share Kässmann's standpoint.

"Ms Kässmann may have an opinion about Afghanistan but she should not express her criticism of the Afghanistan deployment of the army on behalf of church members," he said.

Kässmann repeated her criticism on 17 January at a podium discussion in Berlin with Gregor Gysi, the parliamentary leader of the Left Party, the only party in the German parliament that says it is totally opposed to Germany's military presence in Afghanistan.

"The lid has been kept on the debate for far too long," said Kässmann.

She complained that the international conference on Afghanistan scheduled for the end of January seemed to be concentrating exclusively on troop numbers. "If we send soldiers there, then we must send four times as many civilians and development workers," Kässmann said.

Her New Year criticisms of German involvement in Afghanistan led to a meeting on 11 January with defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. He later told reporters that the talks were, "a good start to a necessary discussion".

He said he had invited Bishop Kässmann to accompany him to Afghanistan so that she could observe the situation firsthand.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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