NEWS STORY: Amnesty seeks faith communities’ aid in anti-death penalty effort

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ They come together to receive the Eucharist, confess their sins and to pray. But this weekend, parishioners at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church will also gather to ponder the death penalty. “In this predominantly African-American congregation, I don’t think people will be too surprised to learn that the American justice system is corrupt,”said Michael Scott, the church’s social justice coordinator, describing how the church will respond to an anti-death penalty video shown after Mass.

The congregation is one of some 1,100 churches and religious groups nationwide who have said they will observe the Oct. 9-11 National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty, organized by Amnesty International USA.

Through weekend activities which range from preaching to letter writing campaigns to observing a moment of silence, Amnesty hopes to raise awareness among religious groups about the use of capital punishment in the United States.

Believers at Riverside Church, where a forum presented by the church’s Prison Task Force and Amnesty International USA will follow Sunday services, have also long opposed the death penalty and fought its reinstatement in New York, said Rev. James Forbes, senior pastor.”Our congregation will be lifted out of the local setting and be joined in solidarity with more national advocates for elimination of the death penalty. You get a chance to be more formidable politically,”said Forbes.

Martin Luther King III, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, kicked off the weekend at a news conference Thursday (Oct. 8) in Atlanta.”My family has experienced the unfortunate killings of my father and my grandmother. Still, we continue to be in opposition of the continuation of the death penalty and we call upon all synagogues, mosques and churches to make a bold witness this weekend against the death penalty,”he said.

The weekend follows on the heels of Amnesty International’s Tuesday release of a harsh report declaring a”persistent and widespread pattern of human rights violations in the USA.” Amnesty, a longtime opponent of the death penalty, included the practice among the report’s six major areas of U.S. human rights violations. The report claimed that the United States’ death penalty is arbitrary, unfair and racially biased.

The report,”Rights for All,”launched the London-based human rights organization’s U.S. campaign, the first directed at a Western industrialized nation. Amnesty International members worldwide will devote their efforts for the next 12 months to putting intense pressure on the United States, said the organization. “Human rights in the United States has not kept pace with international standards. The irony is that the United States uses these standards to judge others,”said Pierre Sane, secretary general of Amnesty International, who added that Amnesty hopes the report will encourage the United States to”clean up its act”rather than to stop criticizing international human rights violations. “The National Weekend of Faith is an opportunity for believers of all faiths to come together for a cause they all have in common. While these beliefs have existed, religious communities have not been organized,”said William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA.

The United States is one of only six countries, including Iran and Pakistan, which continues to execute juveniles. “It is not pretty company we are keeping,”said Schulz, referring to the large number of human rights violations for which Iran and Pakistan are known.

Mobilizing religious groups is advantageous for the 37-year-old human rights organization, said Alison Booth, a researcher at Amnesty International USA’s Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. “Communities of faith are, by definition, people who are already dedicated to a set of beliefs,”she said.”By utilizing that base we don’t have to educate them about human rights, morality or respect for life. “Churches and religious communities generally teach mercy and forgiveness _ the death penalty is antithetical to all of those,”Booth added.

Believers have enormous potential to contribute toward the abolition of the death penalty, Schulz said.”Because they have a faith perspective, people of faith have a very special message to bring, that is: Our laws must measure up to our highest values.” Indeed, Americans are the exception among modernized nations on their support for the death penalty and while most countries have eliminated capital punishment, the United States is passing laws to expand the practice, said Amnesty.

Polls consistently show that the vast majority of Americans support the death penalty. But these polls are misleading, said Sam Jordan, director of the Amnesty International Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Supporting the death penalty has come to mean that you are tough on crime, that Americans support tough crime laws, but if you asked whether people support life in prison with no chance of parole, an even greater number of people would say yes, he said.

The Weekend of Faith will encourage believers to”practice putting their faith into action on issues that require moral leadership,”he added.”The religious community should not abdicate that role.”


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