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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 July, 2004, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
Bishops' united front over Iraq abuse
By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs Correspondent

All 114 Church of England bishops have joined in writing to Prime Minister Tony Blair to warn him of the damage to Britain's reputation caused by the abuse of Iraqi detainees.

Dr David Hope, Archbishop of York
Archbishops have presented a united front over Iraq abuse

The misgivings of many in the Anglican Church about the war in Iraq was well-known to Tony Blair.

Back in February last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams issued a joint statement with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, doubting the moral case for military action.

Since then he's questioned whether the outcome in Iraq could be regarded as a victory, and, only a few weeks ago accused Tony Blair of damaging people's trust in politics by the way his government handled the conflict.

However, the latest attack has the added impact of being the unanimous view of all Anglican bishops in the Church of England... whole-hearted agreement that is all the more remarkable for coming from a body that's repeatedly made the headlines for being divided over issues such as homosexuality and women priests.

It was prompted by the abuse of Iraqis in the custody of coalition forces and by a perceived lack of even-handedness in dealing with the Middle East conflict.

Grave concern

The bishops are seriously concerned, not least because of the growing alienation of British Muslims each has caused.

The bishops believe the disgrace of Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad - and the accusations of abuse by British soldiers - have badly damaged Britain's standing. They don't pull their punches.

"The appearance of double standards inevitably diminishes the credibility of Western governments with the people of Iraq and of the Islamic world more generally", says the letter.

Iraqi prisoner being abused (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)
The bishops are seriously concerned over the torture that took place (AP Photo/Courtesy of The New Yorker)

"There is a wider risk to our integrity if we no longer experience a sense of moral shock at the enormity of what appears to have been inflicted."

The Bishop of Southwark, Tom Butler, told the BBC: "Our government in particular went to war on legal and moral grounds - that's now widely disbelieved".

Other bishops - especially those whose dioceses contain big Muslim minorities - worry that the disbelievers now include British Muslims.

John Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, says there have been tensions over a perceived bias, including in the Middle East.

In a clear reference to the influence of the Christian Right in the Bush administration, the letter criticised their strong support for Israel as "uncritical and one-sided".

Some of them represent a minority trend in Christian thought that regards the restoration of the biblical land of Israel as necessary for the second coming of Christ.

'Serious questions'

The bishops' letter to Tony Blair blames these "interpretations of Scriptures from outside the mainstream of the tradition" for a biased approach to the conflict.

Our stance on Palestinian-Israeli conflict is regarded by Muslims as a litmus test of our respect for human rights they say, but we are losing our traditional role as an honest broker in the Middle East.

There is now a need to atone say the bishops.

The only way to restore Britain's reputation in the Muslim world is to carry out a full investigation into what happened to Iraqi detainees, and why.

At the back of their mind is the suspicion that the abuse might not have been simply a series of single events now passed into history.

As the letter puts it: "There remain serious questions over how such brutal and indecent behaviour could have come about."

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