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United Methodists find destruction, hope in Afghanistan

7/9/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: Photographs are available with this report.

By United Methodist News Service







When the Rev. Myrna Bethke traveled to Afghanistan in June, she hoped to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that led to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which claimed the life of her youngest brother.

What she found was a capital city, Kabul, "in such ruin and chaos and rubble" that it seemed to belong to ancient times, not the modern world. The devastation wrought by more than 20 years of war and several years of drought showed her, she said, how a group like the Taliban could gain control.

Bethke, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Freehold, N.J., was part of a June 16-29 interfaith delegation to Afghanistan, sponsored by Global Exchange, an international human rights organization. United Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague of Chicago also was a delegation member.

For Sprague, seeing the "absolute devastation" of the country was the terrible part of the trip. Despite weathering a 10-year war after the Soviet invasion of 1979, the factional fighting that followed "destroyed the nation's lifelines of art, poetry, health, education, transportation, agriculture and trade" and allowed the Taliban to emerge out of the chaos, according to the bishop.

The overall result was death and displacement of millions of Afghans. "The human toll exacted by those years of war is staggering, even incomprehensible, for the Western mind to conceive," Sprague wrote in a report after his trip.

But the "wonderful" aspect of the delegation's visit, the bishop told United Methodist News Service, was the various meetings with Afghans and the opportunity to witness some hopeful signs for the future of the country, such as the removal of land mines and the reopening of schools for both boys and girls.

The group was present for the detonation of the one-millionth land mine found and destroyed by the HALO Trust, a British nongovernmental organization. HALO has detonated 860,000 of the mines in Afghanistan alone, said Sprague, citing the "just amazing work done by Afghan men out in the fields."

Upon returning home, Bethke preached about the way the demining operation designates clear zones by painting rocks half white and half red. "As long as you're on the white side of the rock, you're in a clear area," she explained. The image reminded her of the often fine line between life and death. "Afghanistan is on that line, and it is fragile," she added.

Both Bethke and Sprague consider a continued international presence crucial to the country's survival. "One of the consistent things we heard from everybody we talked to was that the forces needed to be expanded beyond Kabul and not withdrawn prematurely," Bethke said.

Sprague believes a peacekeeping force will be needed "for at least a decade" to prevent factional fighting from resuming. "Person after person, while not affirming the U.S. bombing, applauded the demise of the Taliban and urged us to push our government not to leave Afghanistan, but, instead, to join with other nations in the global community to provide a long-term security force that would preserve peace and guarantee adequate time for the new government to evolve … " he reported.

Concern also was expressed about the innocent victims of U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. Sprague said survey crews going from village to village have documented at least 2,000 such deaths, and that's considered a low estimate. The bishop met one 10-year-old boy who drew him a "Guernica-like portrayal of death" to show how he and his younger sister watched bombs fall on their parents, siblings and farm animals.

Most Afghans, he said, do not think those deaths were intentional but caused by human error or carelessness on the part of U.S. forces. Sprague advocated establishing a $25 million victim's compensation fund for Afghans by the U.S. government as a way of making amends and providing capital for the country's rebuilding.

Comprehending the pain on either side was not an immediate process, according to Bethke. She was not sure if the Afghans she met really understood the magnitude of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, where Bill Bethke worked for Marsh & McLennan. Or if Americans have realized the impact of bombing that kills 16 to 20 members of an extended family in Afghanistan, leaving the survivors homeless as well.

It was not until the delegation conducted an interfaith prayer service with Afghan family members, where Bethke shared her story, that "a real connection" developed, she said.

Churches and religious groups in the United States could and should make such connections, both United Methodists believe. As an example, the Episcopal Diocese of New York is funding the rebuilding of a mosque damaged by U.S. bombs. Bethke left a $1,000 donation - raised by her congregation, another United Methodist church and an Eastern Star chapter - with a school in the foothills of Kabul, a gift that "will significantly affect what they are able to do." She hopes to maintain a relationship with the school.

Sprague is encouraging church groups to use agencies such as Global Exchange to arrange visits to Afghanistan. He believes there is a "tremendous opportunity" to build long-term relationships between mosques and U.S. congregations and for Afghan Muslims "to experience genuine Christian love that is not asking for anything."

More information about Global Exchange is available online at www.globalexchange.org.

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