Theologians and church leaders convened Wednesday in the Swiss capital of Bern for the first day of an international conference to "re-frame the religious dimensions" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The 65 Christians attending the four-day theological conference will focus on the issue of "Promised Land" and what position Christians should take in the bitter dispute between Israelis and Palestinians over the land both claim is theirs.
Those caught in the conflict see their positions as having "a divine mandate and polarized as wholly good versus wholly evil," pointed out the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, during the opening ceremony.
However, Christians "must challenge and dismantle ideological attempts to attribute specific political projects and systems to God's will," he said.
Kobia emphasized that churches "are seriously divided on this issue" as Christians have different interpretations of the Bible. But "those differences must not be an obstacle for common action for a just peace," he contended.
Traditionally, Christians, especially evangelicals, are seen as staunch supporters of Israel, which they view as their biblical ancestral homeland that must be protected. But recently, an increasing number of Christians, including prominent evangelical leaders, are calling for just peace and supporting a Palestinian state carved out of Israel land.
Currently, the White House is brokering a deal between Israeli and Palestinian officials to form a Palestinian state.
With the apparent need for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation in the peace process, this week's conference seeks to first work out the Christian perspective on the issue, Kobia said.
"The churches have a key role in the resolution of this long and bloody tragedy of suffering and struggle," said Kobia, who compared the conflict to "another apartheid situation." They are called "to heal and to bring all sides to reconciliation rooted in the ethical and theological imperative for a just peace."
Among the goals of the conference is to start the process of developing a handbook for congregations to guide them in their understanding of issues like the Promised Land, the Church and Israel, and justice and peace.
The handbook is aimed at encouraging Christians to be more active as advocates of peace with justice for both peoples in the conflict.
The event is hosted by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches and by the Reformed Churches in Bern-Jura-Solothurn. It is part of the international inter-church advocacy initiative, Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum, of the WCC.