As tomorrow's United Nations deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait draws near and war predictions escalate, religious leaders with increasing urgency are calling their flocks to prayer -- across faith lines in Maryland and around the nation.
Some church members are demanding that the clergy issue such calls. But just beneath their shared desire for peace, deep ideological and political conflicts remain.
It was insistence by the laity that moved ministers and priests of the Towson area to schedule an ecumenical prayer service at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, the Rev. Mary Louise Ellenberger said.
"The lay people have been asking for peace vigils," she explained. Mrs. Ellenberger is an associate minister of Towson Presbyterian Church.
Although Auxiliary Bishop P. Francis Murphy of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, a frequent critic of U.S. military policies, will address the interfaith gathering in Towson's Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, the purpose is "pastoral rather than political," said another of the organizers, the Rev. Matthew M. McNaught.
Mr. McNaught, a Unitarian Universalist minister who is president of the Towson Area Ministers Association, said, "We see this service as support for the people in our congregations who are worried about what's happening in the Middle East. It is an attempt to draw the Towson community together."
Concerns about likely victims of war and appeals for divine guidance are much the same in every faith group. The hope of avoiding bloodshed in the Persian Gulf region is universal.
Under this surface of seeming unanimity, however, religious people in the pews and on the prayer rugs are sharply divided over Middle East grievances and solutions.
While asking for a "powerful prayer for peace" at all Masses yesterday, the nation's Catholic bishops acknowledged the divisions.
Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of the United States Catholic Conference, urged all Catholics to "set aside any political or policy differences."
The Rev. Jack Lombardi, whose theme was "blessed are the peacemakers" when he preached at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Govans yesterday, said, "My personal belief is that Bush has got himself in a corner, but [in the pulpit] I try not to say much about politics."
Father Lombardi said he warned his congregation against "projecting the evil in ourselves on others." He compared the loathing of "big bad Russia" in times past with the current vilification of Saddam Hussein.
He also noted that the U.S. Catholic bishops had concluded that the requirements for a "just war" were not yet met in the Persian Gulf. One such requirement is that war must be pursued only as a "last resort," the priest explained. He said "other options" for righting the wrongs in the Middle East were still available.
"Peace is active, not passive," Father Lombardi said.
Baltimore's Clergy and Laity Concerned organization, which has urged an increased commitment to praying for peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, also said its plea should be seen "not as a 'policy' statement but as a unifying, positive, non-ideological action."
Some religious groups are pacifist. Some have questioned the morality of blockading food for Iraq. Some are deeply disturbed by the stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs.
Nowhere is the underlying ideological conflict more apparent than among the member denominations of the largest ecumenical association, the National Council of Churches.
Even as many of its Presbyterians, Methodists, Orthodox Christians, Episcopalians and others were backing President Bush -- himself a member of the Episcopal Church -- clergy leaders of the National Council of Churches were accusing the United States of following a "morally irresponsible course" in the Middle East.
Leaders of Reform Judaism deplored as a "moral obscenity" the council's linking of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait with the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.
The council "plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein and his effort to escape responsibility for the rape of Kuwait," Reform Jewry's Union of American Hebrew Congregations charged.
Similar criticism was voiced by the American Jewish Committee.
The heads of the committee's Interreligious Affairs Department said 18 U.S. Protestant and Orthodox church leaders who spent a week in the Middle East last month under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches and Church Women United were part of a "new activism" by pro-Palestinians within Christian churches.
Rabbi Marcel Blitz of Northwest Baltimore's Beth Isaac Adath Israel Congregation agreed. He said a half-day fast previously scheduled for Orthodox Jews tomorrow morning should be an occasion for reflecting on the injustices related to the Persian Gulf crisis.
Baltimore Quakers have scheduled a peace vigil at 5:15 p.m. today at the Homewood Friends Meeting House, 3107 N. Charles St.
Another service of prayers for peace to which Baltimoreans are invited is set to begin at noon tomorrow in Washington's First Baptist Church, 1328 16th St. N.W. The keynote speaker will be the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson.
Regardless of what happens in the Persian Gulf tomorrow, the praying will continue, but so will the separate peace agendas of churches and other religious organizations.
Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars will gather Jan. 22 and Jan. 23 at Washington University in St. Louis to discuss and debate the ethics of warfare.