NCC Delegate to Middle East Calls Against Israeli Barrier

Time is of the utmost essence in bringing peace to Israel and Palestine, according to an 11-member delegation of the National Council of Churches USA (NCC) to the Middle East. The group, comprised of the council’s top leaders, released their statement on Middle East peace after traveling from Beirut to Cairo to Bethlehem to Jerusalem from January 21 to February 4, 2005.

“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,” the delegation wrote.

The statement, entitled, “Barriers Do Not Bring Freedom”, essentially called for change in both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides of the conflict, and called on American Christians to intercede by becoming bridge-builders.

“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,” the statement read. "God's children are called to seek justice, to break down the walls that separate them, and to live side by side in peace.”

In regards to the separation/protection barrier built by Israel, the delegation acknowledged the need for such protection as a deterrent against attacks, but at the same time criticized it for being constructed on disputed territory.

“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,” the statement read. “We call for the removal of the Separation Barrier from Palestinian territory.”

The delegation also criticiezed the affects of the wall as being destructive and counter-productive to peace.

“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,” they wrote. “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.”

Ultimately, the delegation rallied Christians across America to pray for justice and peace in the Middle East.

“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,” they wrote.

The following is the full text of the statement, as released by the NCC:

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 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.