World Council of Churches slaps cartoons

Porto Alegre, Brazil - The world's biggest group of Christian churches criticized the use of military forces to fight terrorism Thursday, and denounced both the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim rage they unleashed.

Wrapping up a wide-ranging conference, the statements underscored how the World Council of Churches increasingly wants to exert its influence into areas separate from its basic mission - seeking greater unity among Christians.

But the 10-day meeting - the largest gathering of Christian denominations in nearly a decade - also showed the limits of the WCC, which has no real lobbying power and can only urge its nearly 350 member churches to support public policies on topics as diverse as relations with Muslims, nuclear arms and efforts to battle AIDS.

"We are trying to play the role that's expected of us," said the Rev. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the WCC, which includes mainline Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox churches representing more than 500 million followers. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but cooperates closely.

The conference delegates urged the WCC to "claim a clearer and stronger public profile." The statements appeared to move the Geneva-based group in that direction - and at times into clear disagreement with U.S. policies.

The group urged its member churches to oppose the use of military forces to fight terrorism, and complained that U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts threaten to undermine international law and human rights. It also called for more projects with Muslim leaders to serve as "an early warning system" against religious radicalism, saying terrorism "can never be justified legally, theologically or ethically."

"Measures to counter terrorism must be demilitarized and the concept of `war on terror' must be firmly and resolutely challenged by the churches," said the statement.

The WCC urged a "criminal justice approach" to fight terrorist networks, such as strengthening the International Criminal Court, which is opposed by Washington as a possible tool for frivolous or politically motivated prosecutions of American troops.

"The `war on terror' has redefined war and relativized international law and human rights norms and standards," the statement said. "A military response to terror may become indiscriminately destructive and cause fear in affected populations."

Last week, representatives from the 34 U.S.-based churches in the WCC issued a statement sharply denouncing the U.S.-led war in Iraq; they also apologized to other nations for Washington policies.

The gathering also closely followed the widening Muslim outrage to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Kobia and other WCC leaders described freedom of expression as a fundamental right, but noted that it must be used responsibly.

Other positions staked out by the WCC include changing the U.N. Security Council to reflect new powers; urging North Korea to rejoin the international pact to control nuclear technology, and calling for debt relief for Latin America. The conference also strengthened bonds with the Vatican, which sent a high-level delegation.