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Religious Groups Press Bush on African Concerns

WASHINGTON–Religious groups urged President Bush to deploy peacekeepers to the wartorn country of Liberia as the president tours Africa and weighs American involvement in the peace process.

Bush, who is making his first official visit to Africa, said Tuesday that the United States would get involved, but didn’t say what would be “necessary” to ensure the peace.

“I assured (the president of Ghana) we’ll participate in the process,” Bush said during a stop in Senegal. “And we’re now in the process of determining what that means.”

Bush has said repeatedly that Liberian President Charles Taylor must step down and leave Liberia. But Bush didn’t say Tuesday whether U.S. participation there hinged on Taylor’s exile. Taylor said Sunday he might accept asylum in Nigeria but hasn’t said when he will leave.

Three aid groups–Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian relief branch of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church; Church World Service, the humanitarian relief arm of the National Council of Churches; and the U.S. Committee for Refugees–said the deployment of U.S. peacekeepers to Liberia would help stabilize the situation in the war-torn country.

“Such a stabilization force now seems the only viable way,” said the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service.

For the past 14 years, violence has torn through Liberia, killing and displacing many of its citizens. President Charles Taylor, who waged civil war for seven years before his election in 1997, now faces rebel opposition.

Taylor also recently was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for allegedly contributing to human rights violations and aiding a rebel faction during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

The Catholic aid group said the deployment of troops would be necessary before Taylor leaves, because his departure would create a power vacuum and “unleash even more chaos and bloodshed.”

Joel Frushone, who works for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and is currently in Guinea, said U.S. military aid is “warranted and appropriate.” Peacekeeping forces would “save thousands of lives,” he said, and would bring security “so that hundreds of thousands of Liberian refugees can go home.”

Church World Service also cosponsored a delegation to promote the peace process, which is making its way through the Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Liberia, however, isn’t the only African nation to which groups called Bush’s attention.

In Nigeria, religious tensions have continued to flare, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, is divided between a predominantly Muslim north and Christian south.

“Muslim-Christian violence … has killed thousands since 1999 and threatens to divide the country,” said Felice Gaer, the commission’s chair.

The commission recommended that the president urge Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to condemn religious intolerance and enforce religious laws. The commission also urged the president to address the 30-year civil war in Sudan in meetings with African leaders.