David Cameron's attempts to gain widespread support for bombing Iraq suffered a setback today as the leaders of two of Britain's biggest Christian denominations cast doubt on the plan.
The leaders of the Methodist Church in Great Britain and the Baptist Union of Great Britain signed a joint statement saying that the group calling itself Islamic State cannot be defeated through military action alone.
They pointed out that “there are no easy solutions”, making clear it would be a mistake to regard warfare as a straightfoward answer to the problem.
They did not rule out the possibility of supporting military intervention in some form, but implied that it is not the right response at present. They say that “there are a number of unanswered questions that must urgently be addressed”.
The church leaders' comments are expected to undermine government attempts to portray military action as a ethical plan with widespread support.
The statement comes ahead of a debate in Parliament on Friday (26 September) on whether the UK government should join the US and others in sending its troops to participate in the bombing of areas of Iraq controlled by Islamic State (IS).
Human Rights Watch has reported that US bombing in recent days has already killed civilians as well as IS fighters.
The churches' intervention is particularly significant because given that neither denomination has a history of opposing war as such. While they both speak out against nuclear weapons and the arms trade, they also provide military chaplains who are funded by the armed forces themselves. A minority of both Baptists and Methodists support pacifism and active nonviolence, but the majority in both churches has traditionally backed 'just war' positions.
In their joint statement, the Baptist and Methodist leaders insisted that “An ideology – even one as dangerous and perverse as that of IS – cannot be defeated by the use of weapons”.
They added, “Military action could help to protect persecuted minorities and prevent IS from expanding its control in Iraq. But countering extremist violence in Iraq requires that Iraqis effectively address the underlying grievances that provided support for the rise of IS.”
Significantly, the church leaders cast doubt on the legal basis for warfare in the area, insisting that “Any intervention must be legally justified and can only be supported as one part of a broad political and economic strategy which must have the support of countries in the region. It is not certain that the most crucial elements of such a strategy are in place.”
The statement is signed by the Rev Lynn Green, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Rev Ken Howcroft, President of the Methodist Conference and Gill Dascombe, its Vice-President.
Their comments contain implicit criticism of the UK government's close relationship with regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Amongst the “unanswered questions” they refer to is, “What is the level of commitment among countries in the region to take steps to prevent the funding of violent extremism – not only in Iraq and Syria but more broadly?”
The signatories are particularly critical of the Cameron government's attitude to refugees, saying that ministers' plans for resettling a number of Syrian refugees “does not even begin to scratch the surface of the level of need and further support must be extended to displaced people from both nations, in the UK and elsewhere.”
Nonetheless, they “welcome the contribution of the UK government to the support of millions of displaced persons and refugees who remain in the region”.
Labour leader Ed Miliband and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg have both backed David Cameron's Conservatives in supporting British involvement in bombing Iraq, although Miliband has called for a greater role for the United Nations.
Any motion to send British troops to join the bombing is therefore likely to pass the House of Commons on Friday, although a number of Labour backbenchers, along with smaller parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Greens, are expected to vote against. Opponents of bombing will demonstrate near Downing Street at 5.30pm tomorrow (25 September).
The church leaders concluded their statement with a call to prayer: “As Christians we stand with those who are abused, persecuted and marginalised, whatever their faith or ethnicity. We pray that leaders in government who grapple with seemingly impossible situations will be guided by God’s wisdom and peace. We will continue to pray for peace, to work towards greater understanding between peoples of all faiths and none, and to advocate for the needs of those most marginalised.”
* The full statement can be read at http://www.baptist.org.uk/Articles/416137/Islamic_State_cannot.aspx
* Briefing from the Joint Public Issues Team of the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches Iraq and Syria: considering military intervention http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Iraq-and-Syria-co...