It was Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent and the beginning of the solemn 40-day countdown to Easter, when Catholics made their strongest appeal to President Bush to avoid a war with Iraq.
The Catholic Church urged parishioners to use the day as a time to pray against war. And Pope John Paul II sent an emissary to the White House to make a personal plea to President Bush.
Bush, a born-again Methodist, listened to Cardinal Pio Laghi, a former Vatican ambassador to the United States and a Bush family friend, who came with a message from the pope that a war would a "defeat for humanity."
Elsewhere in Washington, D.C., 62-year-old Tony Bearjie left services at St. Matthews Cathedral hoping Bush would be impressed by the number of Catholics who turned out in churches around the country. "If that doesn't make a difference," Bearjie said, "and if the president doesn't listen to that, then we are in serious trouble."
Christopher Havins, 29, said "I think any grand show of faith around the world is going to do a lot of good."
Divisions Among Christians
Despite the vocal push against a war, Christians are divided. Polls show a majority support Bush's view that a war with Iraq could be necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein and many Catholics support military action in Iraq despite the Church's official stand.
Bush's main support comes from conservative Protestants, such as Richard Cizik, a minister and vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"In Iraq today, 5,000 children die a month from the sanctions policy. Is it moral to continue that? And to my friends on the religious left I would say, in giving peace a chance, you allow that immorality to continue," Cizik told ABCNEWS. Yet Cizik and others noted that they feared for the safety of American missionaries working in countries with large Muslim populations, especially turbulent ones like Indonesia, if war breaks out.
Bush belongs to the United Methodist Church, which does not support him on the war.
In Nashville, Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert complained that the president has refused to see "mainstream" Christian leaders who want a go-slow approach to war: "We regret that the president has seemingly isolated himself from certain views when it comes to war," Talbert said.
Talbert also made an anti-war TV commercial on behalf of 36 Protestant denominations, all members of the U.S. Council of Churches. He disputed whether the United States has the right to go to war with a country that, he said, "has done nothing to us. It violates international law. It violates God's law."
What Is a ‘Just War’?
Bush's critics say Christian scholars dating back to St. Augustine in the 4th century believed a preemptive war is an unjust war. In fact, there have been arguments for centuries over what constitutes a "just war."
James Hutchens, a Presbyterian minister in Arlington, Va., said the rules for a just war have changed, adding that St. Augustine never envisioned a threat like Saddam Hussein. "I think that would be a blight on our own character, to sit back and wait to be hit. With the possibility of nuclear, biological and chemical warfare that can destroy whole cities at a time, we simply cannot do that," he said.
Hutchens, a former military chaplain, said the president's critics would be on target if "gentlemen are going to fight wars." But, he said, "Unfortunately, gentlemen don't fight wars."
After Bush's meeting with the papal envoy on Wednesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer sought to put the president's goals in moral terms. According to Fleischer, Bush told Laghi, that "if it comes to the use of force, he believes it will make the world better."
"Removing the threat to the region will lead to a better, more peaceful world in which innocent Iraqis will have a better life," Fleischer said.