NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A National Council of Churches delegation charged Israel with “intentional destruction of Palestinian civil society” in an April 30 statement after a “pilgrimage for peace” in Israel and other parts of the Middle East, April 16-27.
The 13-member NCC delegation singled out Israel’s “Operation Defensive Shield” military initiative against Palestinian suicide bombers, noting in one paragraph amid its two-page statement:
“We were alarmed to find that the damage extends beyond fighting carried out against Palestinian resistance forces to include intentional destruction of Palestinian civil society. The impact of the Israeli invasion and destruction of Palestinian infrastructure has exacerbated the feeling of broken promises and shattered hopes. We urge the Government of Israel to cooperate fully with the United Nations investigation of events that took place in Jenin,” a refugee camp where the most intense battles took place.
“We emphasize the urgency of the crisis in the region and our sense that the Middle East and, indeed, the entire world, stands on the brink of a catastrophe if a comprehensive peace is not achieved soon,” the NCC delegation warned. “Continually, we heard pleas for outside intervention and of the urgent need for the United States to take decisive action to constrain the Government of Israel to abide by United Nations resolutions and to do so as a matter of the highest priority.”
The NCC statement prompted a May 1 response by Mark Tooley, an official with the Institute for Religion and Democracy, noting that the NCC delegation “did not note a major difficulty” in the search for peace in the Middle East: “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.”
The “left-wing U.S. church leaders” reached conclusions that “are fairly predictable,” Tooley stated. “The U.S. and its allies are primarily to blame in every conflict. America’s enemies have been sorely misunderstood. Peace will come when everyone obeys United Nations resolutions and accepts U.N. peacekeepers.”
The NCC delegation listed an eight “critical components of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” including:
— “the end of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”
— “abandonment, dismantling, or other disposition of settlements that negate the geographic integrity of a viable Palestinian state, under the terms of a negotiated peace agreement.”
— “the cessation of the building of new Israeli settlements and of the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.”
The other five components of peace, according to the NCC delegation:
— “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 sharing of Jerusalem by the two peoples and three faiths so that Jerusalem may truly reflect its name, City of Peace.”
— “the commitment by Israel to address the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.”
Tooley observed that the NCC delegation “fired a harsh barrage of complaints against Israeli government policies,” but “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 remunerated their families, was ignored.”
The National Council of Churches, based in New York City, has 36 member denominations; the Southern Baptist Convention, however, has never been affiliated with the council, which was founded in 1950.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy, based in Washington, D.C., was founded 20 years ago as “an ecumenical alliance of U.S. Christians working to reform their churches’ social witness, in accord with biblical and historic Christian teachings,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
The two groups’ Internet sites are www.ncccusa.org and www.ird-renew.org, respectively.
Among other points in the NCC delegation’s April 30 statement:
— “We call upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to an immediate ceasefire, to end all attacks upon 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. 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.”
— “Israel is a state like any other state with the same privileges and responsibilities. It is entitled to full recognition of its legitimacy within the international community, including by the Arab states. It is responsible under international law to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza begun in l967, which holds the Palestinian people hostage. At the same time, Palestinians cannot expect to achieve the dignity, rights and respect they have sought for so long without ceasing acts of violence against the civilian population of Israel.”
— “Throughout our journey the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem remained of grave concern. We offered our prayers and services and expressed our objection to the withholding of food, water and medical supplies to those inside the church. … We asked Israelis and Palestinians to respect the sacredness of the Church of the Nativity, and of all religious sites and buildings, Christian, Muslim and Jewish.”
— “We are deeply concerned for the future of a viable, indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East. The Arab Christian population has declined precipitously in recent decades. Christian leaders shared with us their belief that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to halting and, hopefully, reversing this decline. This must happen quickly before Christians are left with only tiny groups of people who serve as custodians of our most holy places. Christians provide vital leaven to the entire region. Thriving, growing communities of Christians will contribute to the healing and peace process, thereby providing a bridge to reconciliation and hope.”
Among those joining NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar in the delegation to the Middle East were William Shaw of Philadelphia, president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc.; James Edward Winkler of Washington, D.C., general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society; and James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister at New York City’s Riverside Church.
Tooley, in his reaction to the NCC delegation’s statement, needled that the ecumenical group “has retained its decades-long tradition of pandering to dictators while condemning democracies.”
Referencing the NCC delegation’s itinerary during its April 16-27 Middle East mission, Tooley wrote, “Not surprisingly, the dictator of Syria, the king of Jordan, the prime minister of Lebanon, and Palestinian officials all made time to meet with the U.S. church leaders. … This latest ‘pilgrimage for peace’ recalled similar NCC pilgrimages throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s — behind the Iron Curtain, to Central America, to North Korea, Cuba, and, in the wake of the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, to Saddam’s Iraq. In each case, left-wing U.S. church leaders claimed to be impartial agents of peace, while they averted their eyes from tyranny, aggression, terrorism, and even genocide.”
Tooley added, “From Brezhnev and Castro, to Kim Il Sung, Daniel Ortega, and now [Syria’s] Bashar Al Assad, the NCC never encountered an anti-American despot undeserving of its affections.”
Among other points raised by Tooley:
— The NCC delegation’s statement “at times implied a moral equivalence between Israel’s democratic government and the Palestinian Authority,” whereas to Tooley, “the terrorist suicide bombings and the Israeli military strikes aimed at terrorists and their sponsors” reflect a clear “moral distinction.”
— “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,'” Tooley recounted. “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 U.N. resolutions.’ Assad was vexed that U.S. policy had been preoccupied with fighting terrorism.”
Tooley continued by noting that the NCC’s 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 mention of the severe limitations on religious freedom and other civil liberties in Syria and other Arab states. While expressing concern for the survival of Christian communities in Israel and the West Bank, their statements said nothing about the tribulations of Christian minorities elsewhere in the Middle East.
“If the NCC delegation challenged any of the Arab leaders about human rights abuses, it is not recorded in the NCC’s own reports,” Tooley recounted. “By contrast, the pilgrims told freely of their disagreements with Israeli officials.”
— “Press reports on the NCC trip featured many dubious claims made by Arab spokesmen who met with the delegation,” Tooley wrote. “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 they have performed, the Jews have not found any clue or link to their existence in the area,’ claimed the official of the Islamic Wakf that controls the mosque and shrine.”
Tooley countered: “Mainstream archaeologists recognize the site as the location of the ancient Jewish temple.”
The Institute on Religion and Democracy, at the outset of the NCC delegation’s trip to the Middle East, contended that the NCC has shown “a severe tilt toward the Palestinian Authority that distorts truth and undermines the church’s witness.” The institute’s president, Diane Knippers, urged the NCC delegation to avoid becoming “mere propagandists” for the Palestinian side of the conflict.
U.S. Christians “cannot ignore the ethical failures of the Palestinian Authority nor of the Arab nations that claim to support the Palestinian people,” Knippers said. “Nor should Christian Zionists offer uncritical support for Israel. U.S. Christians need to show greater humility about our prescriptions for peace.”