Saying No to Torture

by Kate Karam Moore

tortureAn alarming number of people, including many active in church life, have come to regard torture as an acceptable interrogation method rather than a violation of human rights or a degradation of the image of God in each person. This is especially when the accusation of terrorism has been made. Euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation methods” and “water-boarding” are frequently published in newspapers and heard on our radios and televisions. Over time we have become less disturbed by reports of U.S.- sponsored torture.

One can only hope that the recent White Paper issued by Physicians for Human Rights – recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 – will help awaken our ethical senses. The 30-page report, issued in June, indicates that since 9/11, CIA medical professionals have engaged in medical experimentation on detainees. These doctors were not caring for the health of individuals. They were not prescribing medicine or diagnosing disease. They were involved in torture. To quote from the report:

Health professionals, working for and on behalf of the CIA, monitored the interrogations of detainees, collected and analyzed the results of those interrogations, and sought to derive generalizable inferences to be applied to subsequent interrogations. Such acts may be seen as the conduct of research and experimentation by health professionals on prisoners, which could violate accepted standards of medical ethics, as well as domestic and international law. These practices could, in some cases, constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity.” (To read the full text, go to:

Responding to the physicians’ initiative, on June 8 the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) organized a press conference at which Executive Director Rev. Richard Killmer announced that NRCAT has formally requested a federal investigation into allegations of CIA use of torture and experimentation on prisoners. For Linda Gustitus, President of the Campaign, the physicians’ report provided disturbing evidence that “doctors employed by the CIA monitored, recorded, and assessed” torture practices “to improve their effectiveness.” Not only were doctors used to develop interrogation techniques, but their involvement protected non-medical personnel involved in torture from prosecution for what they were doing – “a cynical effort,” said Gustitus, “to meet the conditions manufactured by the Department of Justice to get around the well-established definition of torture.” In this way the U.S. government can declare that it vehemently opposes torture while departments of government research and practice torture.

Several Orthodox bishops have signed NRCAT’s Statement of Conscience against U.S.-sponsored torture, including Greek Archbishop Demetrios, Antiochian Metropolitan Philip, Armenian Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Romanian Archbishop Nicolae Condre, and Metropolitan Christopher of the Serbian Orthodox Church. By signing the Statement, they agree that torture “degrades everyone involved – policy-makers, perpetrators and victims. It contradicts our nation’s most cherished ideals. Any policies that permit torture and inhumane treatment are shocking and morally intolerable.”

tortureThank God they are taking a public stand. It’s a beginning. In other areas of the world, Orthodox bishops, priests, and lay people are prominent in the anti-torture movement. Sadly, American Orthodox believers remain far more passive regarding torture, a silence that can only create a breeding ground for more torture and other acts of abuse. We must speak out. If ever there was a time to speak out against torture, the time is now.

Given our experiences with torture, the Orthodox Church is uniquely prepared to speak out against torture practices in our governments. The Orthodox Church has experienced the evil of torture from our founding to the present day. Following the torture and crucifixion of Christ, the apostles faced torture and imprisonment, in the end giving their lives as martyrs. Many of our churches are named after martyrs who were tortured, among them St. Christina of Tyre and St. Katherine of Alexandria. One cannot imagine an Orthodox church lacking icons of saints who suffered torture. Our faith is dynamically shaped by the sufferings of the faithful.

Many of our parishioners have fresh memories of torture, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Indeed, we have living witnesses in our midst who carry on their bodies and in their minds the scars of torture. CIA doctors are alleged to have used techniques on detainees that are reminiscent of Ottoman, Nazi, and numerous Communist regimes. During the Armenian Genocide, doctors used typhoid injections to kill thousands of Armenian prisoners. In Romania, Communist doctors tested sleep deprivation and extreme temperatures on captives in the gulags. Torture was commonly carried out against prisoners in Russia in the Soviet era, including many Christians. Now it appears America has joined the ranks of history’s torturing nations.

God reminded Israel, “You shall not enslave others because you were slaves in Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21, 23:9) Likewise we, whose community includes so many victims of torture, should feel a special obligation to prevent torture because we know what it is like to be tortured. As a communal Church, each of us is included in the experience of our co-communicants and is accountable for protecting others from torture. Every time we enter the church building, see the icons, light a candle, we are including ourselves in the great flow of the Orthodox faith. When we prepare ourselves for the Eucharist, we acknowledge that we are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses,” many of whom were tortured and degraded. When we include ourselves in the Church, we are incorporating the lives and struggles of the apostles, martyrs, and saints into our own experience.
During funeral services, when we sing, “May their memory be eternal,” we are asking God to further include us in the great movement of the Church. We are asking that the memory of past Christians be so absorbed by the souls of the present believers that their memories might be passed down eternally. There is a social responsibility involved in this process – that the faith, courage and values of earlier Christians would become ours.

None of us personally witnessed the actual death of Christ, yet we remember His death in the mystery of bread and wine. We participate in a historic event even though we were not there. When we receive communion, we are in communion both with Christ’s death and resurrection and with those who have lived the faith before us. In this way, for Orthodox Christians the experiences of the martyrs should be personal. They were tortured. They suffered under unjust governments. Torture threatened to degrade the image of God and the dignity of their faith. Although we, as individuals, may not have been tortured, we are included in the experience by “their memory eternal.” Accordingly, when Orthodox Christians encounter torture in our governments, we have a responsibility to act with the collective voice of the martyrs and saints and fight against the use of torture.

As Orthodox Christians, our understanding of community differs significantly from many of our Western counterparts who speak of Christ’s life and actions in the past tense. We are not asking God to help us learn from historic figures – we are asking for their actual, living faith, the intense and radical faith of the Apostles. When we say the words of the Creed, we are connecting ourselves with that faith. When we care for the sick or homeless, we are connecting ourselves with that original faith. The Apostles and Church Fathers took such strong stances in upholding the truth that they challenged the power structures of their governments. They loved the faith more than their own lives.

Care for the basic needs of others is at the heart of Christian faith. Christ represents a turn-the-other-cheek justice, a lay-down-your-life-for-the-lives-of-others type of justice. As Christ said, “What you have done to the least person, you have done to Me.” Through the Church calendar and our many commemorations, we remember the Christ-revealing lives of those who have gone before us. Yet in honoring heroes of the past, we cannot forget our responsibility to help shape the future. Christ’s crucifixion and His legacy mean nothing if we do not protect those being tortured and stripped of dignity in our own time. In communion with the radical faith of our forebears, we must stand against torture.

A significant action an Orthodox Christian in America can take is to join the National Religious Campaign Against Torture as a member, as the Orthodox Peace Fellowship has done recently. Via our web site, you can sign its “Statement of Conscience.” Encourage your parish to use NRCAT’s Orthodox materials. A video for adult parish use is available, including an Orthodox-specific discussion guide. Support our Metropolitans Christopher and Phillip and Archbishops Demetrios, Nicolae and Vicken by getting involved.

As Archbishop Demetrios stated, “The deliberate torture of one human being by another is a sin against our Creator, in whose image we all have been created. This practice should not be condoned or allowed by any government. It must be condemned by all people of faith, wherever it exists, without exception.”

Bearing the wounds of torture, Christ looks at us from our cathedral ceilings. In loving our Lord, Orthodox Christians ought to be doing all we can to abolish the abuse of captives, for whose protection and salvation we pray at every Liturgy. For the peace in the world, we pray to the Lord. For the sick, suffering, and the captives, we pray to the Lord. May our Liturgy so permeate our lives that our actions reflect our prayers as instruments of divine justice and compassion. ❖

Kate Karam Moore is a second-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her studies include the Syriac and Coptic traditions, theology of the early Church, and modern applications of such Orthodox concepts as theosis. She writes, “I am Antiochian by baptism but was raised in between my mother’s Lebanese traditions and my father’s Protestant German ones.” She is currently a summer intern with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture <> in Washington, DC. The graphic above was made by the author.

❖ In Communion / Summer 2010 / issue 57