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Churches unite against U.S. torture

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

Almost 300 congregations across the country have combined forces this month to try to shame the U.S. government about torture through black-and-white banners posted on church properties.

From Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Alaska to Augustana Lutheran Church in the District, 298 houses of worship are displaying banners with messages such as "Torture is wrong" and "Torture is a moral issue."

"It's to give physical and visible voice to religious opposition to torture," said Linda Gustitis, a Unitarian who is president of the National Religious Campaign to Abolish Torture (NRCAT), which is providing banners to churches.

"Torture is not a political issue," she said. "It does not depend on whether or not you support the president or not, or a political party or not. We believe it is obligatory for people of faith to speak out against torture. Their silence condones it."

Staff at NRCAT, founded in 2006, worked hard to find houses of worship in all 50 states that would post the banners. In six states " Mississippi, West Virginia, North Dakota, Georgia, Idaho and Nebraska " it "took a lot of effort," said John Humphries, program director for NRCAT and a Quaker.

"In Mississippi, the politics are such that it can be intimidating to post a banner," Ms. Gustitis said.

The overwhelming majority are Catholic or mainline Protestant churches along with 27 synagogues. The list includes three mosques or Islamic centers, and one Buddhist temple. Twenty-one of the participating congregations are in the Washington area, including St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Washington and Warner Memorial Presbyterian Church in Kensington.

"This is an important issue for Muslims in North America," said Mohamed Elsanousi, an NRCAT board member. "Islam values the dignity of human beings and considers that the essence of humanity. That dignity is impacted by torture."

America's religious community is divided on torture, Mr. Humphries said in a phone press conference featuring several NRCAT officials. Among the church groups not represented at all are Mormons, Assemblies of God, Orthodox Christians and Southern Baptists.

"There were some areas of the country where people were fearful about posting a banner," he said, adding a banner was stolen this week from a church in Illinois.

"One Episcopal priest expressed concern that his church would be defaced. Other congregations decided not to display the banner but they had deep internal dialogue about this issue."

NRCAT officials said they were inspired to launch the awareness campaign after President Bush in March vetoed a bill passed by Congress that would have prohibited the CIA from using "waterboarding" and other harsh interrogation tactics. The administration also has consistently stated that the United States does not engage in torture.

"As a community, Jews have been victims of torture," said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights. "In the book of Genesis, we learn people are created in the image of God and there is a divine spark in everyone. Torture denies that spark."