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For some, Amnesty letters spell faith

By Rich Barlow, Globe Correspondent

Two dozen mostly young people cluster around a table in a spare office overlooking Somerville's Davis Square. Flanked by a bulletin board loaded with posters for human rights causes, these Amnesty International volunteers create a hum of conversation as they sign packets of typed letters and stuff them into envelopes. Beneath the letters' polite tone and VIP addressees, there is a low boil of righteous indignation:

''Dear Minister: I am writing, as a member of Amnesty International, out of grave concern for the safety of Muhamad Sa'id al-Sakhri. He is reportedly being held in incommunicado detention at a branch of the military intelligence in Aleppo in Northern Syria ...''

''Dear Mr. President: I am greatly concerned to learn that Army-backed paramilitary groups operating in the department of Bolivar [in Colombia] have declared Jackeline Rojas to be a military target ...''

''Dear Mr. Justice Robert Francis: I am writing to express my concern regarding the case of Darlie Lynn Routier (Texas Department of Corrections #999220/MPF). Ms. Routier is a 30-year-old housewife currently on Death Row ... ''

President Bush has declared that war with Iraq, if it comes, will be the liberation of that country. Warfare has on occasion been the terrible tool freeing tyrannized peoples, from American slaves to Nazi concentration camp prisoners to Bosnian Muslims. Yet volunteers for Amnesty, the human rights advocacy group, work to liberate by pen-point rather than gunpoint, one person at a time.

Some volunteers here don't believe there can be a just war. They are not convinced that even the Civil War and World War II were unavoidable. And a war of liberation in Iraq horrifies some.

Conversing with a friend while signing letters, one volunteer spoke with disdain about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's recent, caustic remarks about France. ''He's so undiplomatic,'' she complained. ''The man has no social graces whatsoever.''

''I refuse to believe that at this stage in human development, with all that we have learned and achieved, we must resort to Neanderthal tactics'' like violence, said Molly Johnson, who joined Amnesty when she converted to Catholicism.

Christine Aquilino has been penning letters for more than a decade, a calling found in the insights of Buddhism - and her personal experience with domestic violence.

That was years ago, but the soft-spoken 51-year-old from Arlington remembers ''what it means to be afraid, what it means to be oppressed. And how wonderful it feels to have someone care for you.'' Showing that concern by writing letters on behalf of oppressed people taps several Buddhist precepts.

''The Buddha taught that we're all interconnected,'' she said. ''If someone in Iraq, if their family is devastated by war, that's my family, too. There's no way I can shut my eyes to that pain and suffering. ... He also taught us not to hate our enemies.''

Rick Roth was propelled to join Amnesty by a joyful occasion, the birth of his daughter, as well as by his Quaker principles. A businessman of the Ben-and-Jerry's school - he sports a ponytail and once gave an interview in a T-shirt imprinted with a quote from labor leader Eugene Debs - Roth, 49, carted 2-month-old daughter Hope to his first Amnesty meeting, back in the second year of the Reagan administration.

''It's a parental responsibility to affect the world that your kids are going to go into,'' he says. ''The reason I'd be against the death penalty or why I would work for human rights is that, like all Quakers, I believe that there is a light in every person. ... We're all more than the worst thing that we do.''

Any fight for justice, peaceful or not, brings battles won and lost. Roth said he once helped win political asylum for a Guatemalan union activist who survived an assassination attempt. (The man's son wasn't so lucky; he was crippled in the attack.) Today, the man works at Roth's business. Aquilino points to the release last month of a Russian journalist, incarcerated for four years for exposing the military's mishandling of nuclear waste. However, still haunting the Amnesty volunteers is the continued imprisonment of Tibetan Buddhist nuns and Leonard Peltier, a Native American convicted (wrongly, argued Aquilino) of aiding the shooting of two FBI agents.

Undergirding Amnesty's activism is a rejection of the argument that it is chauvinism to expect Western-style human rights from all cultures. ''I don't care if someone's Chinese, Lebanese, or Serbian. You can't kick their teeth in,'' said Roth. Perhaps that belief, that we are all precious, makes many Amnesty volunteers more religious than they realize, he mused.

''There are some people I do Amnesty work with that call themselves atheists, but I think that they have a deep faith. A lot of us, me included, are not that comfortable with a lot of language about Jesus and God. You can take a lot of sermons and snip them up - `Lord Jesus Christ, blah, blah, blah' - and it doesn't have a lot of meaning for us. [But] if you think there's good in everyone, if you think there's a connectiveness among people, if you want to make the world a better place - these are religious concepts, maybe in a different language.''

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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