American religious leaders, who once urged President Bush to be cautious about rushing into an invasion of Iraq, are now among leading critics of the war, which marks its third anniversary March 20.

The United States Conference of the World Council of Churches apologized for their government’s foreign policy at the council’s recent general assembly in Brazil.

“We lament with special anguish the war in Iraq, launched in deception and violating global norms of justice and human rights,” said the statement from representatives of the 34 U.S. members of WCC. “We mourn all who have died or been injured in this war. We acknowledge with shame abuses carried out in our name.”

The National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., which ran TV ads in 2003 labeling the war immoral, recently sponsored an interfaith vigil on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to pray for peace in Iraq.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar recently called for closing of Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib Prison and for the U.S. to pledge never to use torture and abuse as weapons for defense.

Last year heads of NCC member communions signed a “Speak Out” letter calling for an early fixed timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the war.

“Those who lead this nation want nothing more than the church’s silence, the church’s complicity, the church’s blessing,” John Thomas, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, a UCC member, said at an anti-war rally last September.

The UCC is a member the Win Without War coalition, along with the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society.

Ninety-five bishops from the United Methodist Church, President Bush’s own denomination, last November publicly repented of complicity in what they called an “unjust and immoral” invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“In the face of the United States administration’s rush toward military action based on misleading information, too many of us were silent,” said a statement of conscience signed by more than half of the 164 retired and active United Methodist bishops worldwide.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly expressed grave moral concerns about the military intervention in Iraq and said U.S. forces should “remain in Iraq only as long as it takes for a responsible transition, leaving sooner rather than later.”

The National Association of Evangelicals did not publicly endorse the war, but a leader said a “silent majority” probably supported the invasion, because they trusted the president.

The invasion was not completely without religious support, however. Early support for the invasion by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention prompted one observer to label it the “War Denomination.”

Early on Baptist Press devoted extensive coverage to the war, sending a reporter and photographer twice into the war zone to document how Christian servicemen and women were handling the war. The Library of Congress selected the denominational news service for an Internet archive about Operation Iraqi Freedom. Attention to Iraq has dropped off of late in BP.

Last summer the SBC passed a resolution of appreciation for servicemen and women in all branches of the military that pledged to “pray regularly for our president and to stand with him in opposing global terrorism as he makes decisions that potentially impact the entire earth.”

A new Gallup Poll found that Protestants are still less likely than other groups to say the war was a mistake. Forty-five percent of Protestants say it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq, compared of 52 percent of Catholics, 58 percent of other religions and 62 percent with no religion.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll found half of Americans think the number of U.S. military forces in Iraq should be decreased. Of those, a third support immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

Forty-three percent believe the U.S. is making significant progress in restoring civil order in Iraq, a 17-point drop from the 60 percent who thought so three months ago.

President Bush’s approval rating dropped to 37 percent, the lowest ever, according to the latest monthly poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, with Iraq a key source of dissatisfaction. Sixty-one percent said they disapprove of Bush’s handling of the situation there, and 51 percent said overthrowing Saddam Hussein wasn’t worth the cost in human and financial toll.

Half said the war had weakened U.S. standing in the world, and 57 percent said they are not confident it will end successfully.

As of this week, according to the Department of Defense, at least 2,039 members of the U.S. military have died in the war and at least 17,124 have been wounded in action.

Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed in the war vary. A Web site called Iraq Body Count on Thursday estimated the toll at between 33,638 and 37,754.

Also this week, the U.S. military said it had launched the biggest air offense in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, targeting suspected insurgents near the town of Samarra, where a Shiite shrine was blown up by Sunni militants triggering a wave of sectarian violence and retaliatory attacks.

At Congress’ request, a bipartisan panel of prominent Americans was formed to assess the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and political and economic developments in the country.

Bob Allen is managing editor of

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