As peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders continue, the head of a global church body sent a message Thursday to negotiators to stress the concerns of Palestinian Christians.
"Palestinian Christians are ... concerned about their future here and about their status in Jerusalem," said the Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in a message addressed to Middle East negotiators in Washington, D.C.
"Their residency rights, as is the case with all Palestinians living in Jerusalem, including the basic human right to family life and family reunification, are threatened by severe restrictions currently imposed by the Israeli authorities. This must come to an end so husbands, wives and children may be together as one family."
The political status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees are among the issues being discussed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who began talks in Washington on Thursday.
The two leaders agreed to meet roughly every two weeks and try to reach a framework agreement.
George Mitchell, the United States' special envoy to the Middle East, explained that such an agreement is "more detailed than a declaration of principles but is less than a full fledged treaty."
"They will work to create an atmosphere of trust that will be conducive to reaching a final agreement," he said.
Tveit stressed in his message that final negotiations on the status of Jerusalem should involve the heads of the local churches, whom he met with this week.
He further pointed to the Christians' concern over the discourse about religious identity of states in the region which they fear will marginalize them.
"Any debate over the religious composition of a given state is an internal one," Tveit stated. "However, it should guarantee the principle of equality of all citizens in their rights and duties as human beings."
The WCC leader called for "just peace," which Palestinian Christians are pleading for.
"Now is the time for a just peace," he said. "The time of occupation and violence must end."
The U.S.-brokered negotiations was the first in 20 months between the two sides. Netanyahu and Abbas will meet again on Sept. 14 and 15 in the Middle East.
While Palestinians aspire to an independent state in the territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 war, Israel maintains that the territory is disputed and has stressed its need for security.