Tuesday, July 13, 1999

Religious group
wants U.S. to apologize
to Marshalls

Residents still suffer from
nuclear tests that go back
over 50 years

By Mary Adamski


Marshall Islands residents are suffering into the third generation from U.S. nuclear testing in the Pacific and a major religious denomination says it's time for an apology.

"People were told they would return to the islands ... it's 53 years and they are still waiting," said Alma Coleman, secretary of the Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Hawaii.

Coleman and others of the Hawaii conference of the church successfully lobbied for a redress and apology resolution at the United Church of Christ General Synod last week in Providence, R.I. Delegates from all 50 states approved the measure,which calls on the federal government to make amends.

Most Americans have heard about Bikini atoll, site of atomic testing from 1946 to 1954, but few know the damage continues, in high incidences of cancer and other medical woes and in contaminated ground and drinking water that left islands still uninhabitable.

Coleman said yesterday at a news conference that the church group hopes to gain support from other organizations to press for reparations to pay for environmental cleanup and medical care.

The timing "is critical for the Marshallese people right now," said Marshall Islander Leona Isamo, because renegotiations are starting on the Compact of Free Association between the United States and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The United States provided $150 million in economic aid in the 1986 agreement, which allows continued U.S. military weapons testing on the Kwajalein missile range.

"The $150 million was arrived at before documents were declassified," Coleman said. "That is when we found out the damage was so much greater to the islands and the people." She said 22 islands in the atoll 2,100 miles southwest of Hawaii are contaminated from the 67 tests.

She said a much greater amount will be sought in the renewal of negotiations by the Pacific nation. She compared the amount to billions she said were spent on environmental cleanup and compensation to people downwind of nuclear testing in Nevada.

"The United States has never apologized to the people who are still not able to return to their homes," Coleman said. Islanders were relocated to other Marshall islands and about a fourth of the total population has migrated to Hawaii or the U.S. mainland, she said.

Isamo said at least half of the Marshall Islanders who have come to Hawaii are here for medical care residual from exposure to the radiation. The rate of leukemia, thyroid abnormalities, cancer in every category was many times higher than in the United States.

The idea of apology and redress is not new to the United Church of Christ, spiritual descendant of the Congregational missionaries who brought Christianity to Hawaii. The national organization offered an apology to Hawaiians in 1993 for the role its members played in overthrow of the last Hawaiian monarch 100 years earlier. The local organization followed through with reparations money for Hawaiian churches and groups.

Other church organizations joined Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries at their news conference yesterday to support the idea of redress and apology.

"We are all Pacific islanders by virtue of where we live," said the Rev. Barbara Ripple, superintendent of the United Methodist Church, whose district covers Saipan and Guam. She said she will seek passage of a similar resolution at the United Methodist Church's national conference in March. "Lies were told by the United States; I am ashamed of that."

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