NEW YORK, FEB. 15 -- Black civic and religious leaders, expressing "outrage" at President Bush's rejection of a heavily conditioned withdrawal offer by Iraq, called today for an immediate cease-fire in the Persian Gulf War.
"Our chief adversary has expressed a desire to withdraw from Kuwait," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "We cannot walk away from this moment in history. The strings he attached are irrelevant."
Meeting in Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church, a longtime center of black political and social activism, more than 50 prominent black church and political leaders produced a letter to Bush condemning the war and a lengthy plan to stimulate emerging anti-war sentiment among blacks.
Participants included Coretta Scott King, Rep. Major R. Owens (D-N.Y.) and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., head of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, and the group expressed unanimity in opposition to the war.
Public-opinion polls have shown consistently that blacks are far less enthusiastic than whites about the war. In recent Washington Post-ABC News surveys, slightly more than half of all blacks said they oppose the war, while about eight of 10 whites have consistently supported it.
In large part, today's summit was a confirmation of frequently expressed complaints that billions of dollars spent in pursuit of war in the Persian Gulf region are being diverted from desperately needed social programs at home.
The group adopted a plan that encourages 65,000 black churches to offer sanctuary to war resisters and to offer counseling to those who seek to be recognized as conscientious objectors.
"Some say this is not patriotic," said Bishop John Hurst Adams, a senior leader of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. "But patriotism is that which you consider most honorable. If peace is most honorable, then that is what is most patriotic."
The leaders called on the United Nations to reconvene to consider a broad solution to problems not just in and around Iraq but for the entire region. The letter to Bush calls the war immoral because it was "begun without military provocation. Not one U.S. citizen was attacked. The bombing was begun by the United States and its allies."
The daylong discussion repeatedly veered back to domestic effects of the war and of what participants said they regard as the continual oppression of minorities in the United States.
"This group feels we have moved in this country from nightriders to night bombers," said Delores Williams, president of the women's missionary society of the A.M.E. Church. "From bombings in Birmingham to bombings in Baghdad."
The letter states that the United States is spending more than $1 billion daily to wage a war "when we should be spending that much and more to wage peace, educate all our youth, cure all our disease, unshackle all our alcoholics and dope addicts" and much more.
Held in the church basement, the meeting often had the feel of a religious assembly as speakers took turns preaching to like-minded listeners. The group called for designating April 7 as National Peace on Earth Sunday and for a day of fasting and prayer in the preceding week.