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Wayward Christian Soldiers

We confess we're not experts on Christian doctrine. So maybe we missed the revelation, in Thomas Aquinas or elsewhere, that no war is just unless it is sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council.

This idea seems to be the newest clerical rage now that President Bush has decided to oust Saddam Hussein. The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, expressed the Holy See's view that any decision to use force "must come about through a decision taken within the framework of the United Nations." This is the same U.N. that the Catholic Church challenges (rightly, we think) when it pushes for population control and a world-wide right to abortion.

Protestant clerics have also found a higher moral authority in Kofi Annan. General Secretary Jim Winkler of the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society -- the denomination to which both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney belong -- has stated flatly that "no member nation has the right to take unilateral military action without the approval of the U.N. Security Council."

Ditto for 37 British, Canadian and American members of the World Council of Churches Central Committee. Their recent open letter, "A Call to Stop the Rush to War," at least notes Saddam Hussein's pursuit of weapons. But it reserves its "growing alarm" for how "the United States government has become increasingly unilateral in its approach to foreign affairs."

There are any number of legitimate arguments against a war in Iraq, prudential as well as principled. We've published some in these pages, and we certainly respect pacifism rooted in religious conscience. But since when did multilateralism become the linchpin of just-war theory?

We'd have thought the main religious issue is whether war with Iraq is justified at all, not whether one nation or several decide to wage it. Either Saddam, with his history and weapons of mass destruction, is a profound moral threat to the world or he isn't.

By demanding U.N. approval, our churches are attributing to that body a moral wisdom that would have Saint Augustine rolling over in his hair shirt. Whatever one thinks about Mr. Bush's alleged "unilateralism," at least he's democratically elected, which is more than you can say about much of the General Assembly. Any institution that hails Yasser Arafat, who built a career on terror, is nobody's moral exemplar.

As for the Security Council, one of its permanent members is China. Leave aside the murders in Tiananmen Square and Buddhist Tibet. In China, many of the co-religionists of those clerics who now place so much trust in the Security Council are harassed, jailed and sometimes killed. Catholics loyal to the Pope remain persecuted, as are Protestants whose only crime is reading the Bible, without official authorization, in their own homes. Last December five members of an evangelical sect were sentenced to death in secret trials. This persecution goes well beyond Christians, as members of the outlawed Falun Gong can grimly attest.

Russia, another Security Council member, has its own issues with religion: Non-Russian-Orthodox from Pentecostals to the Salvation Army have faced restrictive registration laws against the exercise of their faiths. And don't forget rotating member Syria, home to the family Assad, renowned for its compassion and for following the Golden Rule.

We recognize that Christian leaders believe they are accountable to a Higher Authority, but can't they do better than the U.N.?


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