30/06/2004

Church leaders tell Blair of dismay at 'brutal' jail abuses

The leaders of the Church of England have written to Prime Minister expressing their dismay at the "brutal and indecent" mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by coalition troops, warning that the "deeply damaging" images of abuse had "diminished the credibility of Western governments".

The letter, signed by the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, was written on behalf of all 114 bishops of the Church of England and follows on from their annual meeting earlier this month.

It sets out "the priorities that the bishops would like to see the government pursuing following the transfer of sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government", and also touches on the Middle East peace process, the Church of England said.

The bishops warn that "moral authority" must be shown in all aspects of the coalition's work if the rule of law, stability and prosperity is to be firmly established.

The letter stated: "It is clear that the apparent breach of international law in relation to the treatment of Iraqi detainees has been deeply damaging. The appearance of double standards inevitably diminishes the credibility of Western governments with the people of Iraq and of the Islamic world more generally."

The Church leaders said that, in the present climate, the onus was on governments to both adhere, and to be seen to adhere, to international law.

Counter-terror measures and heightened security should be achieved in a way that "avoids any perception that the commitment of western governments’ to internationally agreed standards on the treatment of detainees is diminished", the letter said.

"We cannot afford to be other than tenacious in our commitment to the Geneva Convention and other relevant international agreements," the letter added.

The bishops welcomed the transfer of sovereignty and said that sustaining support for the interim Iraqi government through the United Nations should be "a key objective during this period".

The priority must now be to do "everything possible to help the Iraqi people rebuild their own country after many years of oppression and hardship". However, this task was all the more important when "murderous and arbitrary violence" is commonplace.

The Church stated that it too had a part to play in countering the "crude terms of religious confrontation" which various groups have been invoking as justification for their actions.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Britain's role as the honest broker between the opposing sides had been "vitally important", and must continue.

The bottom-line for Tony Blair is for government to "give a lead in showing that respect for human dignity, the rule of law, and religious freedom are indivisible".

(gmcg)

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