Dozens of Utah religious leaders joined their national counterparts Wednesday in petitioning against torturing prisoners taken in the war on terror.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not a part of the collective call but issued its own statement Wednesday when asked for comment. The church "condemns inhumane treatment of any person under any circumstances," said church spokesman Dale Bills. "The church has not taken a position on any proposed legislative or administrative actions regarding torture."
By contrast, a Utah interfaith statement calls on Congress and President Bush to "rule out 'any and all use of torture' of war prisoners as an option for the U.S. government or its agents." It affirmed a similar statement issued Nov. 9 by the National Council of Churches stating, "Torture turns its face against the biblical truth that all humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). It denies the preciousness of human life and the dignity of every human being by reducing its victims to the status of despised objects, no matter how noble the cause for which it is employed."
Local leaders said they will urge members of their faith communities to contact their congressmen, "advocating passage of the 2006 Defense Appropriations bill with the 'anti-torture provisions' from the Senate's bill be included.
"We believe that all of our faith traditions can uphold the same intent to 'love our neighbors as ourselves,' a common thread found in nearly every world religion," the statement said. It included signatures from 41 religious leaders representing 14 different faith groups, including Episcopalians, Catholics, Muslims, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Unitarians, the United Church of Christ, the Church of Religious Science, Quakers, Disciples of Christ, Seventh Day Adventists and Utah Pagan Clergy.
The Rev. Dan Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah and one of the signatories, said when the National Council of Churches sent out its news release regarding torture, it piqued some interest within the diocese. "I showed it to Bishop (Carolyn Tanner) Irish and said maybe we should send it around and see if there are those who agree. We did that, and you have it now."
The petition was sent to local members of the Interfaith Roundtable, including the Public Affairs office of the LDS Church, Webster said. Though it involves a national and international issue, rather than something specifically local, Webster said "many faith traditions are concerned about the inhumanity of torture in how it relates to us as a country, but also how it relates to us as human beings."
After the petition was circulated, Webster was contacted by a representative from Utah Pagan Clergy, who said the "the scriptural references in the statement are not as important to her organization as the fact that pagans are opposed to torture."
Webster noted former President Jimmy Carter's appearance Tuesday in Salt Lake City to sign his new book dealing with the nation's changing moral compass and how religious fundamentalism is often used in shaping public policy. Religious rhetoric by some evangelical Christians and members of the Bush administration invoking divine mandate for the war in Iraq "has interested religious leaders greatly in what is being done in the name of God.
"I think it's calling on God as a way to justify what is being done, and I think Carter's analysis of the Christian fundamentalism that's influencing much of our actions has awakened many religious leaders. . . . There are a lot of things he sees a result of a very small segment of our nation" that many Utahns and other Americans see affecting "our national policy and our national soul."
The Bush administration has come under heavy criticism in recent months after a memo to former White House counsel (now Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales surfaced last year, sanctioning the use of some forms of torture.
The document, dated Aug. 1, 2002, analyzed how far U.S. interrogators could go to extract intelligence from those captured in the war on terror before being guilty of war crimes. Known as the "Bybee memo," it was signed by then-Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee, who now sits on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and participated in discussions on the use of torture with Gonzales.
Bybee is also an active member of the LDS Church, and his participation in producing what some call the "torture memo" has been debated by both public policy groups and Internet bloggers ever since. Just this week, a flurry of activity on www.feministmormonhousewives.org has debated the role of torture against terror suspects, and Bybee's role in crafting the Bush administration's stance.
The memo outlined that to qualify as torture, physical pain must be "equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death." Gonzales and others discussed several abusive techniques that could be used, including "waterboarding," which involves strapping a person to a board, raising his feet above his head, wrapping his face and nose in a wet towel, and dripping water onto the head, simulating the suffocating effects of drowning.
Several bloggers wondered why the LDS Church has never issued a formal statement condemning torture. Bills said he couldn't comment any further than the statement offered Wednesday by the church.