The Arrogance
of Religious Faith

To illustrate the arrogant and deadly potential of religious faith, consider what happened in the final hours of the life of Brazilian diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations’ first Special Envoy to Iraq. A highly effective, much admired, and handsome diplomat, de Mello was killed in his office in the United Nations building in Baghdad by a suicide bomber in 2003. The tragic story of his death was documented in the recent HBO/BBC documentary, Sergio.

Targeted by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida for his role in helping East Timor from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Sergio de Mello lay gravely injured when a suicide truck bomber penetrated security and brought the UN building down with a powerful blast.

Searching through the rubble, two U.S. Army Reserve soldiers—Army Reserve firefighter William von Zehle and medic Andre Valentine—came across a slight opening where two survivors could be seen and heard below. One of the trapped men was de Mello, covered from the chest down with bricks. No rescue equipment, not even a shovel, could be found. Radios and cell phones didn’t work. The soldiers descended one by one into the narrow gap in the rubble where they tried to free de Mello and the other man, Gill Loescher, a researcher from Oxford University working under contract with the UN. The soldiers worked with bare hands and simple tools. Others later joined the effort. They used a woman’s purse and flimsy cord to painstakingly lift debris piece by piece from the bottom of the hole.

Rescuers talk about the “golden hour”—if victims can be transported to a medical facility within sixty minutes they stand a fair chance at surviving blunt trauma. Two or three hours had passed. Time was running out.

Suffering from excruciating pain, Sergio de Mello constantly asked about the well being of other UN staffers and even insisted in the midst of the disaster that the UN should not pull out of Iraq. At one point Valentine, the medic, came face to face in the void with de Mello and Loescher, who had drifted out of consciousness. “I tried to get them into what I felt was their religious belief, that Jesus loves you,” Valentine explains in the film. Valentine told Sergio he wanted to pray with him. Still lucid, de Mello angrily replied, “Fuck prayers! This is not the time!” But Valentine insisted, “You’ve got to have faith, you have to believe.” Incredulous, de Mello said, “Believe? Damn God! God did this to me!” Valentine told him, “God didn’t do this to you man, you have to have faith this strong to believe that God can get you out of here. I’m your savior…you have to believe in me!”

Sergeant von Zehle, the other rescuer in the hole, remembers clearly that Sergio wanted no part of the religious experience Valentine offered, “which I think upset Andre a little bit. I tactfully or untactfully said, “We don’t have time for this shit…we’ll pray when we get him out. Let’s get him out!”

Time ran out. The distressed Sergio Vieira de Mello quietly took his last breath.

In the documentary film which was shot and released years after de Mello’s death, Andre Valentine persists unabated. “What’s wrong with praying? He (Vieira de Mello) failed me. I really believe God sent two miracles, Bill and myself. We were his angels and he failed both of us. And it hurt real bad. I’m mad at him but I’m also hurt for him because he didn’t believe in me. He didn’t believe in a miracle. We only asked him to stay alive, have the will to survive, have the faith to survive, and he didn’t want to.”

Reflecting on what happened, von Zehle said, “I’ve never had the experience in thirty-five years when somebody said, ‘Hey, let’s stop and pray.’”

Andre Valentine’s intentions were certainly good and his rescue work overall should be appreciated. But deluded by the idea that God would deliver a miracle and completely disrespectful of de Mello’s personal views at the moment when we was most vulnerable, Valentine wasted precious time, caused de Mello tremendous unnecessary stress, and then blamed de Mello publicly for “failing me.”

A truly sad example of the arrogance of religious faith.

The HBO documentary Sergio can be purchased on amazon.com and other video outlets.

© James Lull