Christian leaders have called on governments around the world to "abandon all support for nuclear weapons" as they make an historic pilgrimage to mark the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of two Japanese cities during World War II.

Leaders from World Council of Churches' member churches in seven countries - the US, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands and Pakistan - are making a pilgrimage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to mark the 6th and 9th August anniversaries of the atomic bombings of those two cities. Debate continues to rage over whether the two 1945 bombings - reportedly estimated to have resulted in the deaths of up to 340,000 people both at the time and over following years - were necessary to bring an earlier end to World War II.

CALLING FOR A NUCLEAR ARMS-FREE WORLD: Christians from Japan and around the world march to the Catholic Memorial Cathedral for World Peace in Hiroshima, Japan, on 5th August, 2015, as part of the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the US dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. PICTURE: Paul Jeffrey/WCC

"It is time to abandon all support for retaining nuclear weapons. It is time to refuse to accept that the mass destruction of other people can be a legitimate form of protection of ourselves."

- Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, of the United Methodist Church in the US

Speaking at the Catholic Peace Memorial Cathedral in Hiroshima this week, the leader of the pilgrim delegation, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson of the United Methodist Church in the US, said it was time "to abandon all support for retaining nuclear weapons". 

"The church leaders on this World Council of Churches' pilgrimage are from seven countries that say they are in favor of a world without nuclear weapons," she said. "Yet, year after year, decade after decade, our seven governments stand ready to use nuclear weapons. Seventy years after the destruction here, a total of 40 governments still rely on nuclear weapons."

Bishop Swenson said it was "time to judge armaments and energy use by their effects on people and on God's creation". 

"It is time to confess that our desire for material comfort and convenience insulates us from concern for the source and quantity of the energy we consume. It is time to abandon all support for retaining nuclear weapons. It is time to refuse to accept that the mass destruction of other people can be a legitimate form of protection of ourselves."

Bishop Swenson said the voices of the atomic bomb sufferers, the hibakusha, and test site victims "cry out for an exodus out of the nuclear age".

"Over the course of 12 years - 1946 to 1958, 67 nuclear bombs were exploded in the islands," she said. "The biggest bomb was Bravo in 1954. It was 1,000 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. To this day, many Marshallese cannot return to their homes due to the contamination, and they are suffering from cancer and other radiation illnesses. One facility storing nuclear waste is in danger of being broken open by rising sea levels.

"We must listen to all who suffer nuclear harm - those whose bodies are deformed by genetic mutations, whose lands and seas are poisoned by nuclear tests, whose farms and cities are fouled by nuclear accidents, whose work in mines and power plants exposes them to radiation."

Bishop Swenson described the use of an atom's energy in ways that threaten and destroy life as a "sinful misuse of God's creation". "We are called to live in ways that protect life instead of putting it at risk."

Citing a Biblical passage taken from Deuteronomy 30:15-19, she said the passage was clear in showing that there were ways of living that led toward death.

" The danger in the world today is the potential to worship the power we have to destroy creation more than worshipping the God of creation. When we bow down and worship weapons of mass destruction and the source of their power, nuclear energy (whether it be by nuclear bang or ecological whimper), we are choosing death, not life."

In Japan, delegates on the pilgrimage are meeting with atomic bomb survivors, church members, religious leaders and government officials and will be calling on their own governments to join a new inter-governmental pledge to establish a formal ban on nuclear weapons. 113 countries have so far signed the new Humanitarian Pledge.

The governments of the seven countries represented in the delegation all avow support for nuclear disarmament, says the WCC, but adds that "all continue to rely on the very weapons that caused such destruction 70 years ago and pose a threat to humanity today". 

While both the US and Pakistan have their own nuclear arsenals, the WCC says the other six governments represented rely on US nuclear deterrence, either as NATO members, or, in the case of Japan and South Korea, as US allies in the Pacific. 

"Hence, churches from this group of countries are well-placed to apply long-standing ecumenical policy opposing nuclear weapons and put constructive pressure on their governments today."

The trip is part of a "Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace" adopted by the WCC general assembly in Busan, South Korea, in 2013, which aims to encourage Christians to “move together” in unity and mission.