Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Ecumenical Delegation Raises Concerns on Middle East Visit

Sunday, February 06, 2005

NCC Delegation to the Middle East Issues Its Statement: Barriers Do Not Bring Freedom

NATIONAL COUNCIL OF CHURCHES USA

Barriers Do Not Bring Freedom

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:14)

As a delegation of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, we traveled across the Middle East from Beirut to Cairo to Bethlehem to Jerusalem over the past two weeks, from January 21-February 4, 2005 on a mission of peace. Our journey coincided with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Middle East Council of Churches and individual partner churches have graciously hosted our delegation. We are grateful to God for the witness to Christ made by the living churches of the Middle East from which we descend. We affirm the whole earth is God’s holy land, though of course the land of Israel and Palestine holds particular importance for us, for it is the land of the Prophets and Our Savior. We also affirm that God’s children are called to seek justice, to break down the walls that separate them, and to live side by side in peace.


Especially for the sake of the children, we have hope that peace remains possible and a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine can be reached. But for many of us this was our saddest journey to the Holy Land. Facts on the ground make time of the utmost essence. We posed a question to those with whom we met: “Is there a new window of opportunity for peace?” Our conclusion is that a sliver of hope for peace does exist, but we feel strongly the moment must be seized now or the future will remain dim. As American church leaders, we urge our government to take balanced, strategic action now.

Our word is one of alarm and worry. Current policies promise more war, death, and destruction. We are deeply concerned for all people in the region whether they be Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of other faiths. There are far too many disturbing realities to give us confidence. Not only should people everywhere insist on and act for peace in the Middle East, they must also pray fervently for the peace of Jerusalem.

We believe that American Christians must see themselves as bridge-builders for peace and must not abandon or forget all God’s children of the Middle East. We heard many pleas from our Christian sisters and brothers to raise our voices and work for a just, enduring, and comprehensive peace. The rapid disappearance of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and, indeed, the entire region due to emigration is alarming and can only be reversed if conditions are changed for all the peoples of the Middle East. The Christian community in the Middle East is a living church, not simply the custodian of sacred places for others to visit. We pledged to them we will redouble our efforts for an end of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and for an end of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

We met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders as well as with a wide variety of missionaries, intellectuals, and political officials including those of Israel, Palestine, and the United States. Dialogue and understanding between all faith communities is not an academic exercise in the Middle East; it is absolutely necessary for survival. We must all work for a change of heart and a change of mind that leads toward reconciliation and harmony. We confess that the life of every human being is sacred and that the violent death of anyone is tragic.

Our delegation was in the region at a momentous time: the beginning of President Bush’s second term in office; the election of a new Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, and his moves to demilitarize the militants; Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s opening move to disengage from Gaza; the continued building of Israel’s Separation Barrier; the killing of a 10-year old Palestinian girl in the Gaza; the exposure of Israel’s decision to invoke the Absentee Law which has the effect of confiscating Palestinian land in East Jerusalem; elections in Iraq; and the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

We reaffirm our strong support for Israel and for its right to live in peace and security. Israel has suffered from a long series of suicide bombings, which we find reprehensible. Our support of Israel goes back many years, as does our support for justice for the Palestinian people. Our itinerary included a visit to Yad Vashem, where we honored the victims of Auschwitz and other victims of the Holocaust. We met with victims of terror and other representatives of a wide spectrum of the Jewish community.

We understand that the Separation Barrier is being built as a deterrent against attacks on Israel. However, we learned 85% of Israel’s Separation Barrier is being built on Palestinian land. Much of this is to include West Bank settlements within the Barrier. Quite simply, these settlements should never have been built and must be removed. Like any other nation, Israel has the right to build a Barrier; however one people’s barrier should not be built on the land of another people. We call for the removal of the Separation Barrier from Palestinian territory.

We personally witnessed the devastating effects of the Barrier. Because it is being built not on the 1967 Green Line but primarily on Palestinian land, parents are separated from children, husbands from wives, farmers from their land, patients from hospitals, workers from employers, and local Christians from the holy sites. Palestinian leaders long ago accepted a two-state solution giving Palestine 22% of the territory that once comprised Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Now, the 22% has shrunk considerably due to the so-called “natural growth” of Israeli settlements and a vast strategic network of roads, highways and tunnels open only to Israeli settlers, police, and the military. Palestinians, like people everywhere, must have freedom of movement. Palestinian land is increasingly being chopped into tiny cantons making the possibility of a sustainable Palestinian state unachievable.

Israel has established hundreds upon hundreds of checkpoints, roadblocks, and gates across the Occupied Territories making daily life and travel extremely difficult for ordinary Palestinians. Palestinians and Israelis are trapped in a cycle of violence. The crushing burden of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory contributes to deep anger and violent resistance, which contributes to fear throughout Israeli society. Israelis told us of a hardening of the Israeli soul against Palestinians, and Palestinians told us of the desperation they feel under Israel’s collective punishment. Normal life has ceased. At least half of the Palestinian people live in poverty. We were distressed to learn too many Israelis have little or no knowledge of the human rights abuses experienced by Palestinians.

Our delegation witnessed several of the many instances of harassment and humiliation visited daily upon Palestinian people. Stereotypes of all Palestinians as terrorists must be broken, and Palestinians must understand that many Israelis also want a just peace. Presently, a “lethal dialogue” is underway between extremists on all sides. This must be transformed into a peaceful dialogue. While every leader we met – Christian, Jewish, Muslim – condemned violence, it is clear the overriding problem is Israel’s continuing occupation of Palestinian territory.

We are authentic friends of Israel and we have a vision of peace and security. We are not blind in our support and reserve the right to question the actions even of our friends. We believe genuine negotiations and not unilateral action can avoid unimaginable violence in the future.

We urge President Bush to send a credible special envoy to assist in negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Strong, genuinely constructive US action can hasten peace. We ask Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice upon her visit to Israel this weekend to touch the wall and feel the pain it causes.

We ask the international community to invest in Palestinian projects and businesses. We learned of the pressing need for aid to flow to Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, in addition to other occupied territories.

We will invite Prime Minister Sharon and President Abbas, at the time of their next visits to the United States, to meet with ecumenical leaders as partners in peacemaking.

We call on American Christians to contact the President of the United States and their Members of Congress to insist U.S. policy be balanced toward both Israel and Palestine.

Middle East churches have a vital role to play as bridge builders and peacemakers. We pledge our solidarity with them as part of the One Body of Christ and we will look for ways to lift up their presence and needs within our churches.

We affirm and endorse the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Program which assists Palestinians and Israelis in their everyday lives and urge our member communions to support and participate in this program. We urge people of faith and others in the U.S. and from around the world to visit the Middle East and better understand the situation for themselves.

As people of faith, we affirm life. When ancient olive trees are uprooted from the soil in which they were planted, when access to water is denied, when children’s futures are threatened, this does not lead to life in this world as intended by God. Join us in prayer for the peace of Jerusalem and in seeking justice for all people of the Middle East.

The National Council of Churches is composed of 36 member national denominations, which collectively represent 45 million people in 130,000 congregations.

Members of the delegation are:

*Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr., Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, President of the NCCCUSA;

*Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, General Secretary of the NCCCUSA;

*Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Orthodox Church of America, Secretary of the NCCCUSA;

*Dr. Sylvia Campbell, Alliance of Baptists, NCCCUSA Justice and Advocacy Commission;

*Rev. Dr. Thelma Chambers-Young, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Vice-President of the NCCCUSA;

*Rev. SeungKoo Choi, General Secretary, Korean Presbyterian Church in America;

*Bishop C. Christopher Epting, Episcopal Church;

*Ms. Ann E. Hafften, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;

*Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, Disciples of Christ, NCCCUSA Justice and Advocacy Commission Chair;

*Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, Greek Orthodox Church, Associate General Secretary of the NCCCUSA;

*Mr. Jim Winkler, General Secretary, United Methodist General Board of Church and Society.

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Contact information:

National Council of Churches USA, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115 USA
Phone: 212-870-2025; Fax: 212-870-2817; Email: redgar@ncccusa.org

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Bethlehem: Barriers, and Voices of Hope

By Ann Hafften

In Bethlehem we saw the future in the faces of the children of “Bright Stars” and the Dar al Kalima school. So bright and open, they seem eager for every opportunity and they will be equipped through these fine programs.

We saw the present, too, in the Separation Barrier, a great hulk stalking through Bethlehem’s streets and gardens, cutting the little town off from fields and neighbors and hope. It is painful to see the Bethlehem area so encircled by the grey walls, its people so entrapped by its ugliness, immobilized by its perpetual tread through the land.

Did I say the Barrier cuts off hope? Not so! We hear voices of hope everywhere we go as the people of Palestine scan the horizon for new possibilities, political solutions, fresh starts for civil society, and more opportunities for families. But while we hear these we are watching the walls approach, aware that building has not ceased and that new roads and tunnels are planned every day that will further separate the peoples of this land.

We visited a family near Bethlehem whose lands were confiscated, first for a major highway that serves only Israeli settlers and others with a permit, now for the extension of the Barrier that is relentlessly moving their way. The walls will surround on three sides the home they built in what was a lovely valley before the highway came. The walls will be so close to that no natural light will reach the house. They will cut the children off from their swing set.

And the olive trees are marked for removal. The ancient olive trees surrounding this home bear red spray-painted numbers, their meaning unclear. These trees have witnessed much in their lives in the valley – they saw the coming of this family, they felt the earth movers that built the highway and the tunnel, but they will not know the coming of the Barrier. They will be gone by the time the walls, heavy feet reach this part of the Bethlehem area.

Qualandia Checkpoint: Way of the Cross

By Ann Hafften

At Ramallah’s Qalandia checkpoint we undertook a Way of the Cross liturgy facilitated by friends from the Sabeel Liberation Theology Center. Amid the traffic and the dust raised by thousands of cars crossing over the rubbish and dirt and broken pavement of the checkpoint, we prayed Psalm 142. It seemed hazardous to cross the area on foot, but we did it and climbed a rough stairway to place where we could see the entire intersection, the soldiers across the way at the army lookout, and the Qalandia refugee camp beyond.

Hard to concentrate on our prayers with all the continuous uproar of people and vehicles and military below. Then came the sirens as two police cars careened into the area and drove fast right up to the edge of some tables where fruits and vegetables were displayed. The Palestinian vendors scrambled to load produce into boxes and out of the way of the car as the policeman screamed at them though a speaker. As they worked, the driver continually nudged the car closer and closer, almost bumping the tables and, it seemed, threatening to smash through at any minute and take out the whole stand.

The vendors hustled their wares into the backs of trucks. By the time we had spoken our psalm and sung a Taize song, they were returning tomatoes and oranges to their original places on the stand. They seem to be used to the officers’ furious response to their little business effort; the ear-splitting attempt at intimidation hardly slows sales. What a ridiculously fierce display of power.

Above a little Palestinian village towers a sprawling settlement. We said our closing prayers alongside the scene as we heard from one man whose home was demolished. He built it back up only to have it destroyed again, and one more time it was crushed. The people’s stamina and resiliency are unbelievable, but I can’t help thinking – How much can they take? God be with us all as we seek to be in solidarity with all who want justice and peace.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Holy Land's Christians Honor Their Heritage, Live Their Faith - And Suffer in Conflict

By the Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr.

Bethlehem and Ramallah

The Church of the Nativity stands at one end of Manger Square, beckoning to pilgrims and the curious alike to see the place where, tradition says, Jesus was born. The church itself reveals the layer upon layer of history that this site has witnessed, from early church believers to crusaders to current-day political strife.

The place where Jesus is said to have been born is richly adorned with the fineries of Orthodox liturgical arts. A silver star covers the rock upon which the infant Jesus lay.

This history is often overlooked by some of our Christian brothers and sisters who ignore the fact that indigenous Christians have been in the Holy Land for two thousand years. These sisters and brothers overlook the fact that, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, and all over the Middle East, there are living Christian communities who honor their heritage, who live their faith daily, and who suffer from the hostilities that are part of the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Observing the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square, the town of Bethlehem, and the outlying countryside brings sadness, despite the joy of being in the place of Christ’s birth. This sadness comes from the fact that Manger Square, once a bustling center of activity, is now empty of tourists and pilgrims who fear the violence that has engulfed this place. The sadness comes from the Wall that borders much of the town and, with armed Israeli guards watching over it, cuts off the Palestinians who live here from one another.

The sadness comes from seeing Palestinian land, covered with olive groves and terraces cultivated over generations, now confiscated by the Israeli Government to make way for the continuation of the Wall. One wonders at the confiscation of so much land. It would appear that the reason given for the Wall – legitimate fear of terrorism – is not the real reason at all. This would seem to be confirmed when, at at least one point a couple of days later, we saw Palestinians moving back and forth in a gap in the Wall with Israeli soldiers standing by no more than 25 yards away.

The sadness also comes from seeing ancient olive trees, numbered with huge red, spray-painted numbers, marked for removal and probable replanting on Israeli territory. Americans will remember years ago, when we were asked to donate money to plant a tree in Israel, something we gladly did to make the desert bloom. It saddens the observer to wonder if the further greening of the desert will be done with stolen trees.

In the midst of this sadness, we experienced a glimmer of hope. The Bethlehem International Center, attached to the Lutheran Christmas Church, runs programs that seek to restore the dignity to the Palestinians living in this area. There are art classes for children, cultural presentations in a large, state-of-the-art auditorium, a highly-regarded school and health center, and other such programs that all contribute to the healing of the people. In the midst of chaos, Rev. Mitri Raheb and his staff live out the Gospel, restoring the dignity to the people they serve.

Going from Bethlehem to Ramallah, we began to see the difficulty that comes with living in the midst of the Occupation. The Wall is not the only reminder of the divisions between people. The checkpoints make it difficult for people to pass from one place to another. Permits restrict the movement of people, keeping them separated from family, friends, employment, education and other things. As we prayed an a small hill overlooking one checkpoint, an Israeli jeep occupied by armed soldiers threatened to destroy a fruit-seller’s stand if he did not move it in two minutes. We also prayed at the site where house demolitions emptied an entire neighborhood.

Certainly there is much sadness in this place. But there is also hope. How do I know this? I saw it in the eyes of the children we met, who have seen pain but only can look forward to what may come tomorrow.