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Unitarian Universalists protest Iraq surge

UUA president criticizes Bush for troop increase.
By Donald E. Skinner
1.19.07

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anti-surge rally

Pat Bartels and Reita Ennis carried the banner of the First Parish in Brookline, Mass., while protesting President Bush's deployment of 21,500 more troops to Iraq at an anti-surge rally in Boston Common on January 11. (Christopher L. Walton)

Americans took to the streets—and the sidewalks—this past week to protest President Bush’s decision January 10 to increase troops deployed to Iraq by 21,500. Among those holding banners, protest signs, and candles, were many Unitarian Universalists.

The Rev. Jean Rankin, of First Parish in Concord, Mass., organized a candlelight vigil in Concord that drew 100 people January 11, the same night that churches and other organizations planned protests all across the country in reaction to Bush’s speech.

“I felt we needed to join the thousands of others who were doing this,” she said. “I contacted the other faith communities in town and they were all supportive. We walked in a large circle on the town square for an hour. It was very peaceful.”

The Rev. Edmund Robinson, from the First Church in Belmont, Mass., came into Boston for a peace vigil on January 11, on Boston Common, adjacent to the Massachusetts State House and the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. About 250 people gathered to hear speakers that included historian and social commentator Howard Zinn. “Then I jumped on the train and went home and I stood with 150 people, including many from my congregation, on a street corner in Belmont,” said Robinson. “In some ways that was more impressive. We had more contact with passing traffic, more interaction from the general public.”

Dolores Perez Priem started earlier. On January 4, she and a group of others from First Unitarian Universalist Society in San Francisco participated in a war protest at the Federal Building in downtown San Francisco. Twenty-eight people lay down in white shrouds in front of the doors of the Federal Building, declaring, “No business as usual while the killing and dying continue in Iraq.” Thirty people, including Priem, were arrested.

The protest was also in support of Lt. Ehren Watada, the first U.S. commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. The protest included a procession from the Japantown Peace Plaza to the First UU Society. Watada’s court-martial is scheduled for February 5 at Ft. Lewis in Washington State.

On Tuesday, January 2, First Unitarian Church in Portland, Ore., hosted an interfaith memorial service to mark the 3,000th death of an American solider in Iraq. The service, which was attended by about 300 people, included the lighting of memorial candles, music, brief homilies, and time for reflection and mourning. Black armbands were handed out after the service as a symbol of remembrance and resistance.

On January 11, UUA President William G. Sinkford sent President Bush a strongly worded letter, saying that his decision to raise troop levels, “stunningly disregards the wishes of the American people, the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.”

“My son served honorably as a soldier in Afghanistan during the early stages of that war,” Sinkford wrote, “and so I know how much courage and dedication our troops embody. If we ask them to risk death daily, we had better have a just and sound reason for that request. Their willingness to lay down their lives is a sacred trust. I implore you not to betray that trust any further.”

The UUA passed a resolution at its 2004 General Assembly asking for U.S. compliance with U.N. Security Council resolution 1546, which advocates Iraq’s transitioning to a sovereign Iraqi government, and the withdrawal of multinational troops by December 31, 2005. The proposed troop increase, and the war itself, is troubling to some UUs in the military. Lou Portella, a First Class Petty Officer with 19 years in the U.S. Navy, is a member of the Unitarian Church of Norfolk, Va., which has many members with military ties. “I strongly believe that our nation was strong-armed into going to war for false reasons,” said Portella. “It was a shoddy sell that used fear to whip up a war frenzy that has done nothing but destabilize the Middle East, diminish our credibility as a world leader, kill innocent people, stretch our military to its breaking point, and shake the faith of the American people in its government.”

Another member of the Norfolk church, Melissa Drew, said, “My husband is a military doctor who is currently deployed. While he and I have never approved of this war, he is fulfilling his duty to his service and his country. He and I still believe in the principles that founded this nation even though we may not agree with the current president’s policies.”

An active duty sailor in the Norfolk congregation, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Regarding the future . . . the U.S. cannot just pack up and leave, but the U.S. military can conclude that it has accomplished its mission, to remove a dictator. The rest is up to the diplomats and politicians, which is right where it started before it was destabilized and broken.”


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