Excerpts from recent statements on the Middle East from major Protestant denominations: with response of the institute on religion and democracy

Excerpts from recent statements on the Middle East from major Protestant denominations: with response of the institute on religion and democracy

Erick Nelson

Editor’s Note: In recent months the Middle East has become a major focus of concern by the major U.S. Protestant churches. Frequently referred to as “mainline” denominations, they are all members of the National Council of Churches (NCC), affiliated with the World Council of Churches.

One result of this concern has been a constant flow of delegations from these denominations to various Middle Eastern countries. We reproduce below excerpts from their reports, followed by a critique by the Institute of Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.

U.S. ECUMENICAL

“Delegation members also participated in ecumenical food and medicine aid convoys to Jenin, Bethlehem, and Beit Jala, where we personally witnessed the devastation caused by the Israeli Defense Forces. We were alarmed to find that the damage extends beyond fighting carded out against Palestine resistance forces to include intentional destruction of Palestinian civil society. The impact of the Israeli invasion and the destruction of Palestinian infrastructure has exacerbated the feeling of broken promises and shattered hopes….

“We condemn equally and unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. All are counterproductive to achieving peace with justice. Repeatedly, we were asked to understand the context of desperation and hopelessness that has led Palestinian young people to be willing to kill themselves and Israeli citizens. Similarly, we were asked to understand the depth of fear among the Israeli public that has led to an intense onslaught against Palestinian refugee camps, towns, and cities. Both societies are caught in a cycle of violence and revenge.

“The delegation finds that the following are critical components of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

* an end to the cycle of violence;

* the affirmation by Palestinians and by Arab states of the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders;

* the establishment of an international peacekeeping force, agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to oversee the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and maintain order until a peace agreement can be fully implemented;

* the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza;

* abandonment, dismantling, or other disposition of settlements that negate the geographical integrity of a viable Palestinian state, under the terms of a negotiated peace agreement;

* the sharing of Jerusalem by the two peoples and three faiths so that Jerusalem may truly reflect its name, City of Peace; and

* the commitment by Israel to address the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees….

“Our delegation leaves the Middle East convinced that an enduring peace can be achieved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories ends and if the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure State of Israel follows soon….”

“You can’t blame a people whose humanity has been denied from rising up and demanding their rights…. If one people fail to recognize the humanity of another, you cannot blame them when you suffer. Deal with the reality of what created the crisis.”

–The Rev. John McCullough of the NCC’s Church World Service, quoted by Episcopal News Service, December 12, 2000

“We condemn, without conditions, all acts of violence committed by both sides of the conflict. We ask that you, in your upcoming meeting with Prime Minister Sharon, insist that all violence, including the violence of military occupation–house demolitions, repressive closures, land confiscation, destruction of trees, torture of detainees, and settlement activity–end immediately.

“It is evident to our churches, as well as the international community, that the allowance granted Israel by the United States for the destruction of the infrastructure of Palestinian self-rule, through targeted assassinations, reoccupation of land, and other measures, is a serious policy error. On behalf of the national churches and organizations that make up the Churches for Middle East Peace, we appeal to you to convince Mr. Sharon to cease actions that enflame the Palestinian people and to encourage those Israeli leaders who seek to meet with Palestinian leaders.”

–Letter from the Churches for Middle East Peace to President Bush, January 29, 2001. Churches for Middle East Peace is a cooperative program of 17 religious bodies, including the NCC and most major member denominations.

UNITED METHODIST CHURCH

“Israel will find peace and security through ending the illegal occupation of Palestinian and Arab territories. Palestinian security and peace and economic stability will be found behind secure borders in a civil and democratic society….

“Since United States’ aid has been used by Israel to prolong the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, we call for that aid to be formally monitored so that its use complies with United States law, prohibiting its use in situations where it does not comply. Furthermore, we renew the United Methodist General Conference call `to deduct annually from any Israeli loan guarantees an amount equal to all Israeli settlements spending every year, including spending for settlements in and around Jerusalem’ (Book of Resolutions 2000, #293, pp. 731-732).”

–United Methodist General Board of Church and Society statement on the Middle East, March 18, 2002

EPISCOPAL CHURCH USA

“Amid the terrible surge of violence in the Holy Land, I wish to thank you for your decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region and for your call for Israeli forces to withdraw from Palestinian cities. I am truly alarmed by the massive military response of Israel to the deplorable suicide bombings, and particularly by the reported executions, denial of access by medical personnel, and immense destruction of property and infrastructure. Clearly, the two parties in this conflict no longer have the means or the will to control events.”

–Letter from Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold to President Bush, April 5, 2002

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (USA)

“While we do not condone the acts of violence by certain Palestinian extremists, we are appalled that Israel, in response, has continued to punish the entire Palestinian population and its leaders who have been your government’s partners in the peace process. For the past year and a half, the Israeli army has continued to bombard Palestinian institutions and the civilian population, including those in refugee communities, with merciless attacks….

“We protest the continuing degradation of the Palestinian people by Israel. We again appeal to you for the immediate withdrawal of the military from Palestinian territories. We urge you to renounce and to stop this violent madness and seek the course of peaceful negotiation, for the sake of justice, on which Israel’s own security depends.”

–Letter from State Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon, March 11, 2002

WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES

“These [points of the WCC agenda] included the need to:

* address and condemn the Israeli military occupation and affirm the legitimacy of Palestinian resistance to injustice and foreign occupation;

* condemn violence against civilians and support non-violent resistance;

* insist on the `application of international law as it applied to the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian right to resist that occupation, and all efforts for a negotiated peace settlement’;

* address the right of Palestinians to `self-determination on a sustainable sovereign state, side-by-side with Israel.’

“The delegation also called for pressure to be exerted both on Israel to end the occupation and on other governments, `particularly the United States, to compel Israel to end the occupation.'”

–Report on a WCC consultation on the Middle East, in the WCC’s Ecumenical News International, August 10, 2001.

RESPONSE OF THE INSTITUTE ON RELIGION AND DEMOCRACY

NCC Visits the Middle East: Another “Pilgrimage for Peace” Gone Astray

The U.S. National Council of Churches has developed a method of responding to conflicts in other parts of the world. It makes a “pilgrimage for peace.” So as Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli military reprisals escalated this spring, NCC leaders directed their pilgrim feet (and jet planes) toward the Middle East.

The results this time were no more encouraging than those of past NCC pilgrimages–to places such as the former Soviet Union, Nicaragua and El Salvador, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq and Serbia. Peace has not arrived. Nobody in the region changed policies after learning the NCC’s advice. Perhaps so little attention was paid because the advice dispensed on such pilgrimages is so predictable: The United States and its allies are primarily to blame in every conflict. America’s adversaries are sorely misunderstood. Peace will come when everyone obeys United Nations resolutions and accepts UN peacekeepers.

The delegation of 13 U.S. church leaders visited the region April 16-27 at the invitation of the Middle East Council of Churches. They called their trip a “fact-finding mission” and “a pilgrimage for peace.” The group included officials of a number of mainline denominations, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, and the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

The vast majority of the NCC delegation’s time was spent with local Christian and Muslim leaders. The delegation met with three Arab heads of state. But it scheduled no meetings with the Israeli government until the penultimate day of its visit. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declined the honor of receiving a group that had probably already made up its mind. He left it to lower-level bureaucrats to entertain the U.S. church visitors. The NCC leaders had even less interaction with Israeli Jews from outside the government.

Upon their return to the United States, the delegation issued a statement entitled “By My Spirit: What Will Make for Peace in the Middle East?” The statement followed the skewed moral logic of virtually all recent oldline U.S. church commentary on the Middle East. At times it applied a more equivalence between Israel’s democratic government and the Palestinian Authority. One passage insisted: “We call upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to an immediate ceasefire, to end all attacks on civilians and civilian institutions, and to exercise the highest degree of restraint in responding to violations of the ceasefire. We condemn equally and unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.”

No moral distinction was drawn between the terrorist suicide bombings and the Israeli military strikes aimed at terrorists and their sponsors. Indeed, the words “terrorism” and “terrorist” did not appear in the NCC statement. All “acts of violence” were deplored equally.

But when they dealt in specifics, the NCC pilgrims abandoned any pretense of moral equivalence. They fired a harsh barrage of complaints against Israeli government policies. They denounced “the devastation caused by the Israeli Defense Forces” and “the intense onslaught against Palestinian refugee camps.” They sympathized with the Palestinian “feeling of broken promises and shattered hope” and lamented the “desperation and hopelessness that has led Palestinian young people to be willing to kill themselves and Israeli citizens.”

The NCC group delivered no similar condemnations of actions by the Palestinian Authority and other Arab governments. Those governments were not specifically blamed for the suicide bombings, which were attributed merely to “Palestinians.” Evidence suggesting that Arab governments had incited and equipped the suicide bombers, and renumerated their families, was ignored.

Echoing Palestinian demands, the NCC delegation listed “critical components of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” These included “the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza”; “the cessation of the building of new Israeli settlements”; the “abandonment, dismantling, or other disposition of settlements that negate the geographic integrity of a viable Palestinian state”; “the sharing of Jerusalem” (with Israel renouncing its claims of sovereignty); and “the commitment by Israel to address the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees” whose ancestors lived in what is now Israel.

The only concession that the NCC pilgrims would require of the Arab governments was “the affirmation by Palestinians and by Arab states of the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders.” They did not note a major difficulty: the fact that many Palestinian and Arab leaders have repeatedly spoken of their intent to destroy Israel, and that those leaders have acted on that intent in four wars against the Jewish state.

Press reports on the NCC trip featured many dubious claims made by Arab spokesmen who met with the delegation. Muslim Sheikh Abdul Azzim Salhab told his American visitors that Israel has no valid historical claim to the area around the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem. “Throughout all of the excavations the have performed, the Jews have not found any clue or link to their existence in the area,” claimed the official of the Islamic Waqf that controls the mosque and the shrine. Mainstream archaeologists recognize the site as the location of the ancient Jewish temple.

Adnan Husseini, another Islamic Waqf official, declared: “The Israelis have failed to rule Jerusalem. Jerusalem can never be under Israeli sovereignty because there is no place for Christians and no place for Muslims.” There was no indication in the NCC press releases or other press reports that any of the NCC pilgrims attempted to rebut these charges.

During the NCC’s interview with him, the prime minister of Lebanon fingered Israel as the aggressor. “He committed a crime against humanity,” Rafiq Hariri said of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s military actions on the West Bank. Again, there was apparently no dissent from the NCC pilgrims.

The NCC had a cordial meeting with Syria dictator Bashar al-Assad, whom one Orthodox NCC official praised as a “well-informed, mature, polished head of state” who has “really related to the daily life of the people.” Assad, who refused to recognize or negotiate with Israel, told the U.S. church delegation: “Through all these years and wars and massacres, the Arabs generally, and the Palestinians particularly, were searching for hope…. [Now] the only hope [Palestinians] can have is that the United States will impose a solution consistent with the UN resolutions.” Assad was vexed that U.S. policy had been preoccupied with fighting terrorism.”

NCC general secretary Bob Edgar afterwards called Assad “articulate, clear and thoughtful. He gave insights and a sense that Christians and Muslims and Jews can live together.” Edgar and his colleagues made no public response to Assad’s remarks last year (in the presence of Pope John Paul II) blaming Jews for the “murder and torture” of Jesus Christ and for attempting to kill the prophet Mohammed. Nor did they publicly mention the reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other sources detailing the severe limitations on religious freedom and other civil liberties in Syria and other Arab states.

The NCC group expressed deep concern for the survival of Christian communities in Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But its statements said nothing about the tribulations of Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East. If the delegation challenged any of the Arab leaders about human rights abuses, it is not recorded in the NCC’s own reports. By contrast, the peace pilgrims told freely of their “lively” disputes with Israeli officials. Clearly, they identified Israel as the main culprit in need of correction.

On the other hand, the NCC treated the Palestinian Authority as the oppressed party in need of “solidarity” and advocacy. The assumption seemed to be that the Palestinians are isolated and lacking friends. Yet strangely enough, it is not the Palestinians but the Israelis that have become isolated in the current crisis. Palestinians enjoy economic and political support from the European Union and the United States, as well military support from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United Nations has passed dozens of resolutions condemning Israel and championing the Palestinians. Israel has no significant ally except the United States. So is the NCC’s support for the Palestinians really solidarity with the oppressed, or is it just floating with the same ideological currents that carry along other leftist, anti-western organizations?

–Erick Nelson and Mark Tooley

COPYRIGHT 2003 Heldref Publications

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