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World Council of Churches deplores cartoons and violent reactions

The World Council of Churches has deplored the publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, and urged its members to join in non-violent protests with those experiencing attacks on their religion.

"Misuse of the right to freedom of speech should be met with non-violent means like critique and expressions of firm disagreement," the WCC’s assembly, meeting in Porto Alegre, stated in a 23 February resolution on the final day of its 10-day assembly.

It urged its more than 340 member churches and other partners, "to express and demonstrate solidarity to those who are experiencing attacks on their religion and join them in defending the integrity of their faith by non-violent means".

The church grouping noted, "Freedom of speech is indeed a fundamental human right, which needs to be guaranteed and protected. It is both a right and a responsibility." Still, "By the publication of the cartoons, freedom of speech has been used to cause pain by ridiculing peoples’ religion, values and dignity. Doing so, the foundation of this right is being devalued."

The assembly, the WCC’s highest governing body, warned, "Further publication and the violent reactions to them increase the tension. As people of faith we understand the pain caused by the disregard of something considered precious to faith. We deplore the publications of the cartoons. We also join with the voices of many Muslim leaders in deploring the violent reactions to the publications."

The WCC urged a stepping up of Christian-Muslim dialogue and cooperation, while saying that long-standing grievances about political and social exclusion have inflamed tensions.

"There is a need for a serious interfaith dialogue with respect for each other," Agnes Abuom, from Kenya, elected one of the WCC’s presidents in 1998, told a 23 February media conference. "We stress the importance of freedom of speech but also the responsibility that goes with that."

Muslims across the globe have protested, sometimes violently, against the cartoons which they say are a blasphemy because they carried an image of Muhammad. In Pakistan and Nigeria, churches are reported to have been set on fire by protesters, while in Nigeria Christian mobs rampaged through a southern Nigerian city, burning mosques.

"Churches and church leaders should make use of their contacts to make sure that things don’t escalate out of control," Anglican Bishop Tom Butler from Britain told the media conference.

The WCC resolution said the conflict about the cartoons did not result only from religious tensions: "Failure to find a just and peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, reluctance to accept outcomes of free elections, together with the war on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan add frustration to historical experiences marked by crusades and colonialism."

It noted, "In many parts of the world people identify as being politically and economically excluded, and they often experience that dominant powers and cultures apply double standards in dealing with issues which are important to them."

Further, it stated, "The recent crisis points to the need for secular states and societies to better understand and respect the role and significance of religion in a multicultural and globalised world."

(c) Ecumenical News International