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Suffering at the hands of the US

IN THEIR REPORT on counter-terrorism, the Bishops' working party devotes a large section to the religious motivation of the American public. From a 2001 survey by the University of Michigan, the Bishops suggest that almost one quarter (23.1 per cent) of the US population can be described as white, Evangelical Protestants, and that these, combined with conservative elements in the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant denominations, make up a majority who think of their nation in religious terms. This view would not surprise the Founding Fathers. It becomes a problem only when Americans attempt to export their vision of themselves. The "war against terror" and the campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the Bishops say, are just two manifestations of the US's "mission to press for global reform through the spread of traditional American values". They warn: "There is no uniquely righteous nation. No country should see itself as the redeemer nation, singled out by God as part of his providential plan."

The relationship of religious conviction to nationalism is a potent element in Middle Eastern politics. The West regards it as unhelpful when the religion is Islam, as in Iran. When the religion is Christianity, however, its power to enhance nationalist feeling tends to be overlooked. The growth of the British Empire provides ample evidence of the way evangelistic zeal, coupled with commercial advantage, propagated an imperial ambition (though there is evidence, too, that missionaries tempered the more brutal aspects of European expansion). Our history teaches us that we ought to be wary when singling out the US for criticism.

There is, though, something especially worrying about elements within the US administration. The testimony of Clive Stafford Smith, a British lawyer who represents 40 prisoners in Guantánamo, suggests that acting on poor intelligence did not stop with the weapons of mass destruction fiasco. Mr Stafford Smith ( interviewed) says that US investigators did not even have the right name for one of his Guantánamo clients, a 14-year-old boy accused of financing terrorism. One of the reasons for the present hunger strike is that prisoners are being held even after what passes for a fair tribunal has found no evidence against them. There has been no question of compensation for those wrongfully held, even when they bear the evidence of torture.

The US's holding of implausible (and unknown) numbers of terrorist suspects around the world, and the behaviour of some American and British troops in Iraq point up the importance of one of the Bishops' guiding principles, that respect for "basic human dignity . . . ought to be the underlying moral principle for relationships between states, as well as individuals". It is a fitting task for the Churches to monitor the condition of civil liberties around the world. For an adminstration supposedly guided by Christian principles, were are left wondering at how careless the US can be of its prisoners.

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