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British Quakers take aim at military equipment in name of peace

LEICESTER, England—While virtually all America's Quakers oppose the war in Iraq, Britain's Quakers are much more in-your-face about it.

Matthew Herbert showed that Sunday at a multi-faith center here, when he put a bicycle lock around his neck and warned that it shouldn't be done lightly.

"Be aware you have a metal bar around your neck; a lot of people freak out," said Herbert, a wiry man in his 30s, as he faced a room of 10 potential lawbreakers.

Herbert and his colleague Alison Crane are official "nonviolent direct action" trainers working for the Britain Yearly Meeting, the organization for the nation's 25,000 Quakers. Bicycle locks, they said, are handy for locking yourself on to a demonstration site. And it's better to go limp when police try to take you away, better still to sit in a circle and link arms and even legs.

The direct action training courses, offered free to Quaker or non-Quaker groups, are just one example of how far British Friends are willing to go to put bumps in war's path.

It's not unusual these days to see Quakers holding their meetings for worship outdoors, so passers-by can see their silent prayer—and their array of antiwar signs. One Quaker meeting convenes monthly on a patch of grass outside RAF Croughton, a U.S. military communications center.

Police showed up during one of the worship meetings at Croughton and treated the Quakers like members of a Mafia wedding party. "They took down all the license numbers of the cars," said participant Harriet Martin.

More striking is the willingness of some British Quakers to go beyond civil disobedience.

Birmingham Quaker Paul Milling is out on bail as he awaits trial for entering the U.S. Air Force's Fairford base in Gloucestershire, home to more than a dozen B-52 bombers thought to have flown recent bombing raids over Iraq. On March 13, he and a non-Quaker antiwar activist were arrested after cutting through wire to get into the base and going after dozens of trucks that service and load the giant bombers.

According to news reports, the pair damaged some 30 trucks, pouring sugar and dirt into their fuel tanks, hitting them with crowbars and hammers, and puncturing tires. Milling and colleague Margaret Jones face up to 10 years in jail and heavy fines.

If he has any regrets, Milling said last week, it's that he didn't take full advantage of the base's seemingly lax security and "have a go at a B-52."

Because Quakers traditionally oppose war, Milling said, "this gives me a framework and in a sense permits me to go out and do what I believe in, even if it's illegal. I'm working with an organization I know will be supportive."

In America, though, official Quakerism doesn't condone property damage in the name of peace, even if it's a weapon.

"You're saying Quakers (in Britain) hammered on trucks to destroy property? That's amazing to me," said Mary Ellen McNish, general secretary of the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, which runs Quaker programs and projects around the world.

American Quakers are energetic in opposing the Iraq war, linking with other peace groups and recently helping to deliver one million antiwar signatures to the United Nations. Some of them say more should be done.

The start of "a powerful voice for peace has been very slow, but now is gaining significant momentum," said director Steve Baumgartner of the Pendle Hill Quaker study and contemplation center in Wallingford, Pa. "But I would be strongly in the camp of folks who say our voice, given our history, is way too weak."

Not all British Quakers are aggressively antiwar. In fact, individual belief is so valued in Quakerism that even a pro-war stand would be respected.

If British Quakers are so assertive, it could be because they live in the same land where Quakerism's founder, George Fox, and his followers frequently were jailed and beaten in the 1600s for defying the state religion. Before he went to America, William Penn was jailed here regularly, too.

In England, observed Paul Milling's wife, Rachael, the history of actions against Quakers gives "a feeling you're part of a persecuted religion, and you have to stand up."

The British Quaker position on nonviolent action, direct-action trainer Crane said, means no violence against people, "and that includes verbal violence as well. You might do millions in damage to a fighter jet, but you can't swear at a policeman."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+quakers