Mormons Back Bush Middle East Policy

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - The Mormon church offered support for President Bush's policy in the Middle East, qualifying remarks by an apostle who denounced war at a conference of thousands of faithful last weekend.

Apostle Russell M. Nelson didn't mention Iraq or President Bush's case for toppling Saddam Hussein's regime, but urged "patience and negotiation" in resolving the conflict in the Middle East.

"As a church, we must renounce war and proclaim peace," Nelson said in his sermon Saturday.

Since the sermon, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has declared its support for Bush, most clearly in a Wednesday editorial in the church-owned Deseret News.

"Saddam Hussein and the threat he represents to the United States and her allies will not go away on his own," the editorial said. "This time, the nation may well have to strike first."

Church officials also complained that The Associated Press, which first reported Nelson's remarks, provided a platform for other media — especially talk radio — to misinterpret his sermon.

A church statement says Nelson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, "made plain that the scriptures `strongly condemn wars of aggression, but sustain obligations of citizens to defend their families and their freedoms.'"

The quorum acts under the direction of church President Gordon B. Hinckley and his top two counselors.

One practicing Mormon, Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, found no conflict in Nelson's counsel. He told The Salt Lake Tribune that Mormons have a duty to promote peace, but also to follow their nation's leaders.

"The decision to go to war is not yours, it's the decision of the state in which you live, and if the state decides to go to war, you are not responsible for that decision," he said.

Bennett said he's seen enough evidence to justify a strike against Iraq and Saddam Hussein.

Scholars said the church's quick clarification of Nelson's remarks was unsurprising.

"The LDS church is very sensitive," especially on matters of U.S. patriotism, said Newell Bringhurst, the past president of the Mormon History Association, an independent group of scholars.

Bringhurst, a professor at the College of Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., said the church has nonetheless long "straddled the fence" on war and peace.