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Middle East study team nears release of its final report

‘Time for action is now,’ nine-member panel urges

February 2, 2010

LOUISVILLE

Finding consensus on how to solve the seemingly intractable conflict in the Middle East is as difficult for Presbyterians as it is for the world’s leaders.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Special Committee to Prepare a Comprehensive Study Focused on Israel/Palestine came close as it concluded its fourth and final meeting here Jan. 30.

With several sections of its massive final report still to be completed and edited, the committee approved with just one dissenting vote a package of 30+ recommendations calling for an immediate end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; endorsement  of the emphases on hope, love, non-violence, and reconciliation found in an ecumenical statement by Palestinian Christians called the Kairos Palestine Document; and urging the U.S. government to take swift action toward a just peace that guarantees secure states for both Israel and Palestine — the commonly called “two state solution.”

Their first and key recommendation, committee members emphasized, is that the years 2010-2012 be declared by the upcoming 219th General Assembly  “as a time of Presbyterian prayer and action for the Middle East,” including travel/study to the region, study of the Reformed theological  and historical understandings of the area, itineration throughout the church by Middle Eastern Christian partners and local conversations between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

The nine-member committee worked intently and at times contentiously to craft recommendations that could receive a unanimous vote.  Various committee members cast dissenting votes on individual recommendations, but all save one of them voted to approve the recommendations as a package.

Though he voted in favor of most of the recommendations, when it came to a vote on the entire package, the Rev. Byron E. Shafer, pastor emeritus of Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York City, voted “no,” saying that “on balance” he couldn’t support them in their entirety.

After the vote, Shafer said, “At this time I have no intention of filing a minority report.”

“This committee brings such a diversity of opinion and a wealth of experience from the region of our concern,” said Committee Chair the Rev. Ron Shive (Salem Presbytery) in a press release issued by the committee. “Given the variety of personal experience we bring to these conversations, the fact that we were able to reach such strong consensus on our report and recommendations demonstrates the unity of the Spirit and our witness for justice and peace for all peoples.”

To reinforce that message, the committee voted to include a statement in its report: “Given the complexities of the issues of the Middle East and the diversity of this committee, it is inconceivable to achieve unanimity on all the details of these recommendations. However, every good faith effort has been made to negotiate differences, honor majorities, and come to consensus without forsaking our deepest convictions.”

The committee was established by the 218th General Assembly (2008) to “prepare a comprehensive study, with recommendations, focused on Israel/Palestine within the complex context of the Middle East.”

“Since our first meeting,” said Shive, “we have heard from many voices and perspectives and have done our best to discern God’s call in this moment.”

The committee met previously in New York and Washington, where members talked with political and religious representatives of the Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities.

Last August, the committee traveled through Israel/Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and met with Iraqi Christians who came to Beirut to join them.

With the prospects for a two-state solution dimming and the Christian community in the Middle East declining alarmingly, the committee’s report — which will include extensive historical and biblical/theological sections — strikes an overall tone of urgency.

“The time for action is now,” said Shive.

The report affirms historic PC(USA) positions — an immediate cessation of violence by both sides, an immediate freeze on the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the relocation of Israel’s “separation barrier” to the internationally recognized 1967 border, a shared status for Jerusalem, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel, and immediate resumption of negotiations toward a two-state solution.

The recommendations also address other contributing factors to the continued conflict throughout the Middle East, such as calling for the U.S. government, among other things, to:

  • repent of its “sinful behavior” throughout the Middle East, including the war in Iraq, its “continuing support of non-democratic regimes,” and its “acquiescence” in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands;
  • eliminate tax loopholes that permit U.S. citizens to make donations “to organizations that support human rights violations and breaches of international law and U.N. resolutions”;
  • account for the percentage of U.S. foreign aid that supports such activities and redirect that aid toward the rebuilding of Gaza and the  “dismantling of remaining settlement infrastructure; and
  • “employ the strategic use of influence and the withholding of financial and military aid in order to enforce Israel’s compliance with international law and peacemaking efforts.”

Shafer asked that his nay vote be recorded on the latter recommendation, proposed by the Rev. John Huffman of Los Ranchos Presbytery.

Other recommendations address other governments in the region. Among others, they call for:

  • the main Palestinian political parties — Fatah and Hamas — to work toward immediate reconciliation;
  • all parties in the Middle East, including Iran and Israel, to refrain from all nuclear arms proliferation;
  • Egypt and Israel to end their blockades of Gaza;
  • all parties in the Middle East to “cease rhetoric and actions that demonize others, including Iranian leaders’ holocaust denials, threats by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel, and threats by Israel to transfer masses of Palestinians to Jordan;
  • the Iranian government to “cease its repression of democratic and religious freedoms”;
  • Lebanon to address the plight of Palestinian refugees living within its borders;
  • Syria and Israel to resume negotiations about the status of the Golan Heights;
  • the government of Iraq to “provide for and strengthen the protection of its minority communities, especially its Christian community”; and
  • creation of an international council for Jerusalem, which is a spiritual center for all three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The committee avoided — or commented on — inflammatory words and phrases that have exacerbated the conflict over the years. The words “divestment” and “sanctions” do not appear in the document.

And the phrase “the right of Israel to exist” includes a footnote explaining the pain it causes Palestinians.

“Israel was built on the ruins of Palestinian land and culture,” said Nahida Gordon, a committee member and Palestinian American who teaches at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. “I take this personally — my personhood as a Palestinian has been obliterated. Palestinians are being erased as human beings. To say this [‘the right of Israel to exist’] is to give Israel a pass on the way Israel was created and denies the legitimacy of the Palestinian people.”

At the suggestion of the Rev. Susan Andrews of Hudson River Presbytery, the committee added the following footnote: “The phrase ‘the right of Israel to exist’ is a source of pain for some members of our study committee who are in solidarity with Palestinians, who feel that the creation of the state of Israel has denied them their inalienable human rights.”

The report will also include open letters to Presbyterians and various communities with which the PC(USA) has been engaged around Middle East issues: the American ecumenical community; Jewish Americans; Muslim Americans, Middle Easterners, Palestinians and Israelis.

Andrews called the letters “the most creative part of the report.” Huffman insisted the letters be included in the body of the report and not relegated to an appendix “because this is the context in which we are reporting.”

According to its press release, the committee’s final report will be available to the public later this month.

Study team members include Shive (Salem Presbytery), Andrews (Hudson River Presbytery), Huffman (Los Ranchos Presbytery), Shafer (New York City Presbytery), the Rev. Rebecca Reyes (New Hope Presbytery), the Rev. Marthame Sanders (Greater Atlanta Presbytery), and elders Frederic W. Bush (Los Ranchos Presbytery), Gordon (Muskingum Valley Presbytery), and Lucy Janjigian (Palisades Presbytery).

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