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Religious leaders appeal for prayers and cease-fire in Middle East

World Christian leaders, including the Pope and the head of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, have called for an immediate cease-fire in the Middle East while urging their faithful to pray for peace in the region.

Pope Benedict XVI called for a day of prayer and penance on 23 July.

"In particular, the Pontiff hopes that prayers will be raised to the Lord for an immediate cease-fire between the sides, for humanitarian corridors to be opened in order to bring help to the suffering peoples, and for reasonable and responsible negotiations to begin to put an end to objective situations of injustice that exist in that region," the Vatican said in a 20 July statement.

Separately, Kobia, general secretary of the Geneva-based WCC, in a pastoral letter appealed to WCC members to urge their governments to exercise pressure for an immediate cease-fire.

"The people of Lebanon are suffering violence whose scale defies comprehension; citizens of Israel fear death from the sky; Palestinians and Iraqis mourn new losses day after day. No end to the suffering is in sight," Kobia said in the 21 July letter, in which he urged prayers for the "safety and well-being of all communities in the Middle East – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish."

"In Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Israel as well as Iraq, no amount of fear and anger can justify retaliatory targeting of homes, bombing of communities and destruction of a nation’s infrastructure," said Kobia. "Acts of terror do not give license to wreak terror in return," he said.

"However, instead of policies anchored in law, certain states seem bent on applying new and dangerous remedies to well-known problems in the region," the WCC official warned.

"Their leaders excuse uses of force that go well beyond the constraints of international law. They brand enemies as ‘terrorists’, bypass laws, courts, and juries, and mete out punishment at will even including assassinations from the air," Kobia stated. "Militant groups adopt similar tactics, fuelling conflicts and spreading contempt for human lives."

The WCC groups more than 340 churches, predominantly Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant.

Criticism of the "repeated harsh and disproportionate retaliatory attacks on the country of Lebanon" came from the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, in a letter to partner churches in Lebanon.

"The severe loss of life among innocent civilians and the massive destruction of infrastructures and blockage of access weigh very heavily on our hearts and minds," said Kirkpatrick, who is also stated clerk (chief executive officer) of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

He said his denomination had called on the US government "to press for a cessation of hostility and to intervene for a return to the peace process and a just end to the occupation of Palestinian territories".

WARC, whose headquarters are in Geneva, brings together 75 million Reformed Christians in 218 churches in 107 countries.

In London, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, joined calls for Britain to press for a cease-fire in the Middle East.

"The major players in this at the moment who are not supporting a cease-fire – our own government and the United States government – maybe perhaps have to reckon with a rising level of public despair and dismay at the spiral continuing," he told BBC radio.

(c) Ecumenical News International