Fr. Roy Bourgeois MM, Bishop Tom Gumbleton, and Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire on the left; Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Fr. Bernie Survil on the right. (c) Rick Reinhard / Impact Digitals 2003

Twenty years ago, March 2003, the United States attacked Iraq, an offensive military action based on fraudulent information, fomented by a need for revenge and grievance, and cheered by those who made themselves wealthy in the arms trade.

Throughout the fall of 2002 and the winter and spring of 2003 (and for years to follow), Pax Christi USA members were part of the massive movement of faith-led people who actively resisted this illegal war.

The biggest anti-war events of that time were public demonstrations on January 18 and February 15, with millions of people participating in coordinated actions around the world.

To express resistance to and condemnation of the aggression against Iraq, Pax Christi USA organized public witnesses in Washington, D.C. One was arranged to be held on the first Wednesday after the U.S. began military operations. As it happened, the ground invasion began on March 20, a Thursday, so the Pax Christi event with faith leaders and others took place on Wednesday, March 26.

The witness, held in Washington, D.C., began with a prayer service and press conference at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and was followed by a procession to Lafayette Park across from the White House. The marchers carried a banner bearing a quote from Pope John Paul II: “War is always a defeat for humanity.”

March 19, 2003 prayer service in Lafayette Park, which began with about 100 people and grew to 200 during a demonstration in front of the White House. After the service, 26 people climbed over police barricades and offered themselves for arrest in witness against the war that the U.S. was about to start against Iraq. Photos are Iraqis taken by Voices in the Wilderness. Pax Christi USA Ambassadors of Peace Scott Wright on the left, Judith Kelly on the right. (c) Rick Reinhard / Impact Digitals 2003

Since demonstrations against the U.S.’s possible military action in Iraq had increased, the U.S. Park Police had started to take the unusual step of closing off Lafayette Park, the traditional site of public protests. On the morning of March 26, a group of Pax Christi members and supporters had been in the park in preparation for the day’s action, and when the Park Police moved to close the area, the Pax Christi folks refused to leave. Ten people climbed over the park’s barricades onto Pennsylvania Avenue immediately in front of the White House and were promptly pinned to the ground and arrested, their ultimate charge being “crossing a police line,” a more serious offense than standard civil disobedience actions.

Meanwhile, the larger group was walking from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to Lafayette Park. Once at the park, people started climbing over the barricade into the park, and were quickly swarmed by a large contingent of Park Police officers who tried to block them.

By the time the police were able to finally stop people from crossing the fence, more than 50 people had made it into the northeast corner of the park. After about two hours, during which time they sang and prayed, they were arrested for demonstrating without a permit.

Mary Carry and Fr. Joe Nangle on the left; Dave Robinson, then Pax Christi USA national coordinator, in the center; longtime Pax Christi Metro DC member Tom Brubeck and Jean Stokan in the rear center; Eric LeCompte, Fr. Roy Bourgeois and Bishop Tom Gumbleton on the right. (c) Rick Reinhard / Impact Digitals 2003

A total of 68 people were arrested that day for the Pax Christi action.

Some of the people who participated included Mairead Maguire, Nobel peace prize recipient from Northern Ireland; Jody Williams, Nobel peace prize recipient for her activism against landmines; Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers-whistleblowing renown; Bishop Tom Gumbleton of Detroit; Fr. Roy Bourgeois of SOA Watch; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, to name only a few.

Those arrested were taken to Park Police headquarters in Southeast DC and, after several hours, were processed and released.

Many paid the $50 fee right away or soon after in order to clear the charge, but several refused to pay the fine. It took a few years before those who still had an outstanding charge were able to have a court date, where they explained to the presiding magistrate that the closing of the park that day – claimed to have been done in the name of protecting the president — had been unwarranted since George W. Bush had been out of town, and therefore the arrests had been unnecessary.

The magistrate – whose sister had been a college roommate of one of the Maryknoll sisters murdered in El Salvador in 1980 – agreed with the arrestees and dropped all charges.

>> Click on this link to watch an extraordinary 15 minute video of the day’s events, taken by CSPAN, which starts with an interview with Bishop Gumbleton at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church

>> Read the Washington Post’s report about the event here: Peaceful protest ends in peaceful arrests (March 27, 2003)

4 thoughts on ““War is always a defeat for humanity”: Remembering a Pax Christi action

  1. Thank you for this historical article that narrates our collective obsession with violence as a means to an end. By the way, whatever came about the proposed request by Pax Christi to Pope Francis to speak directly and pastorally to President Biden about substituting diplomacy for the massive delivery of weaponry to Ukraine?
    David-Ross Gerling PhD

  2. It’s not only a question of delivering weapons to Ukraine but also recommending that Ukraine take the risk of using nonviolent means rather than violent means to resist the unjustified use of force.

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