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Middle East Peace

This page briefly examines some of the issues of Middle East peace that impact Presbyterian ecumenical and interfaith relations.

"In the Middle East, national identification is still largely a function of religious affiliation."   --- Barry Rubin in Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft edited by Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (ISBN # 0-19-510280-0)

Pray for Peace, Pray for the Other

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Pray for the Christians of Iraq. Baghdad's Archbishop Avak Asadourian of the Armenian Apostolic Church, representing the Council of Christian Church Leaders in Baghdad, has asked,

Help us to make life better for the Iraqi people, to alleviate its suffering, to keep . . . promises for a better future in all walks of life, and ask for God's help in this humanitarian endeavor.

Pray for peace in Israel/Palestine using words from a liturgy of June 3, 2007, in Jerusalem to mark the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the beginning of a week of International Church Action for Peace in Palestine and Israel, as called by the World Council of Churches:

Help us, Lord, to end occupation -- not by revenge , not by hatred -- but through seeing you in each other as Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and to accept each other's humanity whilst mutually recognizing each other's religious, civil, political, and national rights, for Jesus' sake. Amen.

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Prayers for Peace: an ecumenical cry from the heart is a downloadable selection of prayers, both Christian and interfaith, prepared by the National Council of Churches. The Season of Prayer web site posts prayer resources on Middle East peace from a variety of religions. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program also has prayers for the Middle East and other resources.


| Arab lands and Israel | Iran | Church responses | PC(USA) General Assembly actions |


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Middle East peace: Arab lands and Israel

During Peace and Justice Week (July 30-August 5, 2007) at Ghost Ranch, the Presbyterian conference center in New Mexico, a day-time program on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict will be led by Marthame and Elizabeth Sanders.

Pope Benedict's message on World Peace Day said that states must set ethical limits on their fight against terrorism and that war in God's name is never justified. The National Council of Churches, in its Pastoral Message on the War in Iraq (November 2006), said the Iraq war does not meet the ethical requirements of "just war." Chris Iosso, in discussing his views on a Presbyterian international justice witness in today's Middle East, says we must begin with a “ministry of mourning,” lamenting rather than blaming.

Catholic bishops in the U.S. agreed in a July 17 letter to meet with a group of Catholic members of Congress to discuss a responsible transition to end the Iraq war.

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) -- an ecumenical coalition of churches of which the PC(USA) is a member -- regularly issues action alerts and statements concerning the rapidly changing situation in the Middle East, especially as related to U.S. government decisions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. CMEP resources online include:

On June 19, the Leadership Council of Churches for Middle East Peace met with Burns. It emphasized the importance of policies that promote "one Palestinian people and one Palestinian state." CMEP has update material on the goal of advocating for a single viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

When religious leaders from the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Middle East Peace (NILI) held a May 17 meeting with R. Nicholas Burns, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders were able to offer together their support for:

  • A comprehensive ceasefire that would stop all violence, both intra-Palestinian and Israeli-Palestinian
  • An international conference through which the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative might become a bridge
  • New talks between Syria and Israel
  • A full-time U.S. envoy on the ground in addition to Rice's trips to the region
  • A meeting on the ground with the Council of Religious Institutions by Rice
  • Continuation of informal talks by the parties in the conflict about ideas for resolving final status issues
A December 2006 NILI statement is available online as a bulletin insert. It calls the U.S. to encourage both Israelis and Palestinians in steps toward peace. Its Christian signatories include Clifton Kirkpatrick, John Buchanan, Michael Livingston, Richard Mouw, Leighton Ford. Other signatories include Jews and Muslims.

Over thirty evangelical Christians signed a July 27 letter to President Bush in an effort to correct the misperception that all American evangelicals oppose a two-state solution. Embracing the biblical promise to Abraham, they also write, "Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia . . . Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other." The impetus grew out of the presence of four evangelicals at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Qatar in February. The signers include Presbyterians Earl Palmer, Victor Pentz, Richard Mouw, Leighton Ford; and Len Rogers of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding. One of the group told the New York Times that not all evangelicals are Christian Zionists who believe it is "almost anti-biblical to criticize Israel for anything." When John Hagee of Christians United for Israel was told of the letter, he said his organization "is opposed to America pressuring Israel to give up more land to anyone for any reason. What has the policy of appeasement ever produced for Israel that was beneficial?"

A Washington Post article says Iraqi Kurds are mounting a campaign in the U.S. cultivating grass roots advocates with "evangelicals who believe that many key figures in the Bible lived in Kurdistan."

The Washington Times reported on July 26 that, at a hearing conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Anglican canon Andrew White described the situation for Christians in Baghdad as "more than desperate." He said eight Jews remain in Baghdad, in hiding, and that the international community has done nothing to assist them. Another panelist called the situation "soft ethnic cleansing" and said Christians were disproportionately targeted and that Washington has not helped.

A 2006 Gallup poll, in nine predominantly Muslim countries and the Palestinian territories, shows the majority believe that shari'a law and democracy can co-exist and Islamic law should be a source of legislation. Gallup's analyst says, "If democracy is a stabilizing force that the U.S. hopes to foster in the Middle East, that will mean engaging those people that the public . . . want. There will have to be a greater openness to religiously oriented parties as long as they stay within the political process and don't resort to violence."

A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study looks at American public opinion on Israel-Palestine over the forty years since the 1967 war and compares it with support from other countries. Other responses to the 40th anniversary of the 1967 war include:

A list of institutions that might be supported through "positive alternatives for investing in Mid-East peace and development" was developed as a cooperative effort of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. The PC(USA) web site, in offering the list, says, "No endorsement of any of these organizations is intended. However, we do encourage congregations and individuals to look into the work of these groups and to consider supporting and/or visiting them." Note the realistic comment about actual investment activity on the part of PC(USA) national entities made by  the Institute for Religion and Democracy's James Berkley: " . . . neither the Board of Pensions nor the Presbyterian Foundation is at all likely to cast aside fiduciary responsibility to venture out into high-risk, low-impact investments."

Boycott activity has been progressing in Britain. A Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel in April urged "conscientious academics, artists and intellectuals" to refrain from visiting Israel "to participate in any event or encounter that is not explicitly dedicated to ending Israel's illegal occupation and other forms of oppression," and by May 30 the large academic University and College Union (UCU) had voted to circulate a boycott call to its members for their say in a decision. As the movement expanded, by July the Jerusalem Post published an article saying that Israel's Histadrut Labor Federation was expected to cut all ties with groups that back boycotts. Last month a parliamentary bill was introduced in Israel that would require goods from countries where anti-Israel boycotts are promoted be tagged with stickers reading, "This country is involved in an anti-Israel boycott." The Post said that, according to Britain's embassy in Israel, the British government opposes boycotts of any kind.

The family of Rachel Corrie, who was crushed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer in Gaza as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in 2003, has asked a federal appeals court to reinstate its lawsuit against Caterpillar, Inc. A Ha'aretz article describes the case: The argument on one side is that the sale of the equipment was approved by the U.S. government and that a court should not second-guess the judgment of the government. On the other side, it is argued that corporations should be held liable if they aid and abet violations of human rights.

Israel's education minister, Yuli Tamir, has announced that a new textbook has been approved for the third grade that will give the Arab perspective on "Living Together in Israel." Tamir says the picture is balanced but others, while not denying the facts presented, say they should not be taught in Israel because they might encourage Arab militancy. Tamir, a Labor Party member, was a founder of Peace Now.

When Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, negotiated an accord with Israel's two chief rabbis, he anticipated opposition from advocates for the Palestinians. He said, “We have acknowledged the tensions . . . But our hope has rested very firmly on this, that without friendship and mutual confidence, without the ability to speak to one another candidly and lovingly, we shall never be in a position where our relationship can change things and challenge things and move the situation.” The Times [U.K.] said the accord was expected to enable Williams to arrange London meetings between the rabbis and Muslim extremists.

The American Jewish Yearbook estimates the Jewish population of the U.S. at 6.4 million, substantially above the 5.2 million figure in the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey. The Jewish Daily Forward says the numbers affect communal policy-making and the self-image of Jewish communities worldwide. At stake, among other things, is whether Israel or the U.S. has the larger Jewish population. The Economist (January 11, 2007, issue) highlighted the ambivalence of diaspora Jews toward Israel: There are as many Jews in the U.S. as in Israel, and few of them go to settle in Israel, see themselves as presently being in "exile," or call themselves Zionists. Nonetheless, defending Israel is what the American mainstream Jewish institutions do best.

The chief U.S. correspondent for Jerusalem's Ha'aretz newpaper has written in his blog on "Where is the center of the Jewish people?" He concludes, "There is a degree of difficulty in planning a joint future for Israel and American Jews without first working out the reciprocal relationship. Zionist Israel will find it difficult to relinquish the claim of its centrality and Jewish America will find it difficult to accept the status of a B team."

The Jewish Forward reports that the Reform movement is increasing its emphasis on aliyah, or immigration to Israel. It cites Jewish Agency figures saying that 136 Reform Jews moved to Israel in 2006, out of a total of roughly 3,200 North Americans. Roughly 60% Orthodox and 20% Conservative are among the North Americans moving to Israel. A remarkable change is not anticipated.

This summer and fall the Israel Advocacy Initiative (IAI) --  a partnership between United Jewish Communities (UJC), Jewish Council for Public Affairs, local Jewish federations and community relations councils -- will teach campus advocacy skills to U.S. high school and college students around the U.S. IAI also helps local Jewish communities to advocate by expanding interreligious dialogue. Regional Israel Advocacy Training workshops teach ways to portray Israel through a human lens.

An expanded contemporary definition of anti-Semitism includes the demonization of Israel and denial of its legitimacy among its marks. Kenneth Stern has written Antisemitism Today: How It Is the Same, How It Is Different, and How to Fight It (download without charge). Listen to an interview with him. Alvin Rosenfeld's essay, "Progressive" Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, looks at "the threat that arises when a Jewish imprimatur is given to the campaign to challenge Israel's very legitimacy." Michael Lerner has written a response, There Is No New Anti-Semitism.

Do you want to play out the roles of the Israeli prime minister and the Palestinian president? Religions for Peace has pointed to PeaceMaker, a political computer game that uses real video footage of events. The game's web site says that, to win, players with a zero sum strategy must change to a win-win strategy

Peacemakers: Palestinians and Jews Together at Camp and Dialogue at Washington High are being offered without charge to persons who want to use them for educational purposes. Other video descriptions are available at the same web site.

"Encounter Point" is a documentary film that wants to take no sides in its portrayal of people "with the courage to face their enemies."  A web site gives information about screenings and a DVD.

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An emerging confrontation: Iran

The General Assembly Council of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (GAC) adopted a resolution in mid-March asking U.S. political leaders to initiate “direct diplomatic dialogue with leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, so that by all means, a military confrontation would be avoided." The action responded to a request from the Evangelical Church of Iran which, with the PC(USA), is a member of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC).

Earlier, on February 23, the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, Clifton Kirkpatrick, sent letters to President George W. Bush and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for direct, unconditional talks between Iran and the U.S. He cited the General Assembly's commitment to "the preferential use of nonviolent means for conflict resolution and social change." On July 19, Kirkpatrick joined key religious leaders in issuing a statement on North Korea that concludes with a paragraph on Iran: "The United States should engage Iran in direct negotiations without preconditions to achieve the goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and enhancing regional security. This strategy has been effective in one geopolitical locale, and we urge its implementation in Iran."

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The Forward, a Jewish daily, looks at the outcomes of U.S. administrations approaches to North Korea and Iraq then asks what should be done about Iran. It concludes, "Having dispensed with two of our three Axis members, we have learned about one course of action that works and another one that doesn’t. Logically, the choice shouldn’t be too difficult."

Henry Kissinger has said that "almost through an accident of history Iran has become the tipping point. If Iran succeeds in getting nuclear weapons, it will be impossible to avoid proliferation." The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) is making the Iran nuclear issue its primary concern for the year, its senior associate executive director says, because it is a world problem for which "the Jewish public relations field is uniquely positioned to educate." Ari Shavit, a Jerusalem newspaper columnist, has said that "if Iran goes nuclear, Israel is not immediately doomed. But if Iran goes nuclear, Israel is back in a real existential fight for its survival." "[T}he notion that [a] mushroom cloud might appear . . . would change dramatically Israel's standing in the region."

On the anniversary of the Lebanon war II, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East office pointed to a "redefinition of the struggle." He said, "We are no longer engaged in the old Arab-Israeli conflict; rather, a somewhat unwieldy alliance of Israelis, moderate or realistic Arab leaders, and their American and Western backers is now facing the various manifestations of Islamist totalitarianism. . . . . At the core of the challenge stands the Iranian regime." Asher Susser of the Moshe Dyan Center in Israel sees Iran filling the void left by the Arab's "fatally compromised secular nationalist project." Nonetheless, he does not believe Tehran will soon become an "international superpower."

The Forward sayls divestment from Iran is becoming "a signature issue for the Jewish community."  The idea, it recognizes, comes from the efforts that impacted South Africa earlier. Nonetheless, it is hard for even Jewish communal organizations to do. Perhaps 25% of the endowments held by Jewish federations are invested in hedge funds. Because these are traded daily, it is difficult to monitor the portfolio -- and yields are better in the hedge funds.

The World Council of Churches executive committee reaffirmed the churches' call for the abolition of nuclear weapons and highlighted current situations, including Iran's failure to assure the international community that it does not intend to develop weapons, Israel's refusal to open all its nuclear facilities to inspection, and the U.S.'s unilateral initiative to accept India as a nuclear weapons state.

A delegation of 13 U.S. church leaders met Muslim and Christian religious and government figures in Iran on February 17-25. Their statement after the trip recommends that the U.S. government welcome a similar Iranian group to the U.S., that there be immediate face-to-face talks between the U.S. and Iran, that defining the other with "enemy" imagery cease, and that there be more participation in people-to-people exchanges. The trip's chief organizing group was the Mennonite Central Committee. The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman called the delegation's meeting with Ahmadinejad "a shameful betrayal of American values and and the Christian-Jewish relationship."

On a PBS broadcast (available online) of the church leaders' trip to Iran, NCC associate general secretary Shanta Premawardhana said, "When political leaders mess up, religious leaders ought to be here to go and . . . build up relationships, and bring the conversation up to the high moral ground."  He called the delegation's visit an exercise in two-track diplomacy -- that is, enabling unofficial, person-to-person relationships when nations are at odds. The Fellowship of Reconciliation uses an interfaith, people approach in its peacemaking trips to Iran. Fall trips are planned for September 20-October 5 and November 15-30. An application form is online. 

Tehran's Institute for Interreligious Dialogue (IID) will collaborate with the World Council of Churches to implement a part of the WCC's interreligious project on women and dialogue. A Christian-Muslim meeting on November 25-28 will be in Tehran, and women will have preparatory discussion on the internet, thanks to the IID. One aim of the three-year project will be publication of material on a just society of women and men and on the treatment of women in the world of religion. Christian women will come from the WCC constituency while Muslim women will come from Iran, with some coming from outside.

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Middle East realities and the churches’ responses

The World Council of Churches convened an international conference on the Middle East on June 17-21, 2007, in Jordan. Participants were representatives from member churches and from related organizations in the Middle East and various other parts of the world. The conference issued a document, the Amman Call, which will be the basis for the establishment of a Palestine / Israel Ecumenical Forum that will coordinate existing church advocacy work and promote new joint peace efforts -- including "defining and promoting measures, including economic ones, that could help end the occupation and enhance sustainable growth and development." The WCC will convene a core group to begin implementation and to report to the WCC executive committee in September. There is also an existing WCC Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel. WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia has called the Middle East the most pressing global problem today. The WCC Overcoming Violence web site has posted statements on the Middle East.

The United Church of Christ 26th General Synod (2007) condemned all media programs, publications, advertising campaigns, textbooks, and groups that "perpetuate violence instead of promoting peace" and directed a task force to study appropriate responses to the Israeli-Palestinian situation that "may or may not lead to further support of economic leverage and removal of the security barrier." The resolution's "whereas" statements ask whether the current violence between Hamas and Fatah may show that the UCC has "overlooked many aspects of an extraordinary complicated situation and extraordinarily complicated relationships in the region" in the past.

A divestment task force of the United Methodist Church's New England Conference has issued a report concerning implementation of a 2005 action on divestment. The report recommends divestment from a list of companies. The Anti-Defamation League said the report borders on anti-Semitism.

Christians in Gaza City appealed to the international community to protect them, the Jerusalem Post reported on June 18, and many said they would leave the Gaza Strip as soon as the border crossings reopened. WorldNetDaily reported on June 19 that an Islamic leader had told them that Christians could continue to live safely in Gaza if they accept Islamic rule and refrain from proselytizing activity.

Christian leaders in Jerusalem have called Palestinians to stop factional fighting, warning, "This domestic fighting where the brother draws his weapon in the face of his brother is detrimental to all the aspirations of achieving security and stability for the Palestinian people." Munib Younan (pictured) has challenged Palestinians to use non-violent means for achieving their goal of an independent state living side by side with Israel. He says the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians is symbiotic, with the peace and justice of each depending on the other; a willingness to forgive on the part of both could help reconciliation. Lutheran World Federation general secretary Ishmael Noko, has called upon the children of the House of Abraham to "refrain from instrumentalizing holy scriptures to achieve political goals." The occupation by one branch of the Abrahmic family against another is opposed to the promise by which God gave the land to the children of Abraham.

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) helped coordinate a visit to its region by more than a dozen women from National Council of Churches (NCC) member communions, starting on May 9. The delegation was headed by Thelma Chambers-Young of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., an NCC vice-president, and included three Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) members -- Elenora Giddings Ivory,  Rhashell Debra Hunter, and Shirley Ann Nichols. In Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, the women looked at the effects of conflict among women and children and at Iraqi refugees. See reports and reflections contributed by the group.

A new Anglican bishop for the diocese of Jerusalem, Suheil Duwani, was installed in Jerusalem on the Sunday after Easter. News of the occasion says that "Muslim and Jewish leaders and clerics . . . were notably present." The new bishop's sermon repeatedly referred to dialogue and recognized the mutual sufferings of Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Holy Land. He called for Israel and Palestine to "accept each other and forgive" and said that Jesus' call is to reconciliation.

The Status of Jerusalem statement, released on September 29, 2006 by the patriarchs and heads of local Christian churches in Jerusalem, says the city is interreligious, important to three faiths. It calls for a special open city status that corresponds to Jerusalem’s “double character, holy and universal, and ordinary and local, where daily life unfolds.” It focuses on the need for common agreement between Arabs and Jews and lays out different solutions.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism by four Jerusalem church leaders (issued on August 22, 2006) begins by asserting that Christian Zionism is detrimental to peace in Palestine and Israel. Further, it says, Christian Zionism's worldview identifies the gospel with the ideology of empire, colonialism, and militarism. The Jerusalem Post reported the reaction of those who say it is one-sided and not informed.

Shanta Premawardhana of the National Council of Churches writes, "Christian Zionism is an auto-generated movement, not dependent on Jewish political Zionism. William Blackstone's Jesus is Coming was published in 1878 before Theodore Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896, which is identified as the beginning of Jewish political Zionism. We can be supporters of Israel, even Zionists, and at the same time stand against this theology" (his blog entry, November 9, 2006). See Christian Zionism: A Historical Analysis and Critique by John Hubers on the NCC web site.

Two high-level staff members of the National Council of Churches, U.S.A., have taken the unusual step of publicly posting on the NCC web site an article directly standing against John Hagee of Houston and his Christians United for Israel (CUFI), a Christian Zionist lobbying group organized in 2006. CUFI meets during the week of July 16 in Washington. NCC's Antonios Kireopoulos said Hagee's theology differs from what has been taught for centuries, and Shanta Premawardhana said his villification of Islam is unacceptable. Hagee's influence is extending, according to NewsMax Media, a conservative internet news source.  Some Jewish groups are skeptical or angry. Presbyterian Donald Wagner says that Christian Zionism has been around in some form since the 1600s but has now converged with political and sociological trends in the U.S., fueled by 9/11 fears, end times prophecy, and the rise of right-wing political conservatism.


On the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) web site

  • Presbyterians at work around the world: Israel and Palestine: a general summary on Israel and Palestine, on the PC(USA) web site
  • Presbyterians at work around the world: Middle East: materials for a week of prayer with Christians in the Middle East
  • Resources for study and engagement: Israel and Palestine: resources available on the web site and bibliography of other resources
  • Peacemaking resources on Iraq, on Iran, on Israel/Palestine, and on the Middle East

On this web site


 

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