The National Council of Churches, the country's largest Protestant ecumenical organization, has reversed its opposition to U.S. military action in Bosnia-Herzegovina, saying in a public statement that "we can no longer stand by as human rights are violated in a wholesale manner."
Its change of position follows last week's similar statement from the nation's Roman Catholic bishops, who told the Clinton administration they had become convinced there is "just cause to use force to defend largely helpless people in Bosnia against aggression and barbarism."
In both cases, the religious leaders' support for U.S. military intervention was reluctant and conditional. Both statements emphasized that the use of force must be specific, limited and part of a multinational effort. The two clergy groups drew distinctions between the Persian Gulf war, which they opposed, and the crisis in the Balkans.
Explained Episcopal Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, who helped formulate the new National Council of Churches stand, "In the gulf war, which I opposed, the United States/United Nations started a war in response to the invasion of Kuwait. In the Balkans, the U.N./U.S. seeks to end a war. This war has been waging out of control for over a year and remains an affront to human decency every day that it continues."
Bishop Browning added, "To find common ground on this most vexing issue has been a major challenge for the religious community. I think our joint statement moves us from more hand-wringing to making some important recommendations."
The 40-year-old National Council, with its headquarters in New York City, comprises representatives of 32 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox denominations with a total membership of more than 40 million.
Its statement calls on the Clinton administration to press for a broad interpretation of the United Nations mandate in the Balkans to include strict enforcement of the U.N. Security Council's economic and arms embargo, containment of the conflict, policing of borders, protection of civilian populations and protection of U.N. personnel.
In last week's statement, the Catholic bishops also cautioned against lifting the arms embargo, which especially affects Bosnian Muslims.
Also last week, the American Jewish Committee, a large human-rights organization, went beyond the positions of the Christian groups and called for U.S. air strikes on Bosnian Serb targets and a lifting of the arms embargo in Bosnia.