Full report of PC(USA) Middle East Study Committee is now available

‘Breaking Down the Walls’: a comprehensive report about a complex context

March 10, 2010

LOUISVILLE

The full 172-page report of the Middle East Study Committee (MESC) to the 219th General Assembly (2010) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is now available.

The 219th General Assembly (2010) will meet July 3-10 in Minneapolis.

The third and final portion of “Breaking Down the Walls” was posted online at the Middle East Peace website today. The most recent release includes committee members’ firsthand accounts of their Middle East experiences, policy recommendations and several appendices.

“This report reflects the extensive, hard work of the study committee and the wealth of experience each member brought to our discussions,” said the Rev. Ron Shive, a pastor in Salem Presbytery who chairs the MESC. “Given the interest in this topic and the diversity of our backgrounds, our conversations were always lively. And yet, we managed to have consensus on the bulk of our report and recommendations.”

All but one of the nine-member committee voted to approve the report and recommendations.

The MESC 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.” The Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, moderator of the 218th General Assembly, appointed the committee in consultation with the two previous GA moderators.

In its report, the committee writes that the complex context includes:

“... two ongoing wars, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan and the northwest border regions of Pakistan, wars that, like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, involve issues of U.S. involvement, a use of force, an occupation and religious tension. … ongoing struggles within particular nations: between religious and ethnic groups in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Lebanon; between the rulers and the ruled in Egypt and several other Arab countries; between the native-born and the guest workers in the Gulf region; between political factions in Palestine; between Israelis and Palestinians in Israel; between the ideals of democracy and theocracy in Iran, Israel and Palestine; and between forces of modernization and tradition in all countries. The undue influence of outside forces continues a history of colonial interference throughout the Middle East. Yet most expert observers and popular opinion polls confirm that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle is playing a central role in exacerbating region-wide grief and grievance.”

The committee spent nearly two years engaging in study of the issues. They traveled to the Middle East region to see the situation firsthand. Throughout their time together, they met with Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders as well as U.S. and Middle Eastern government officials. They spent time with church partners in the region and held vigorous discussions all along the way.

Outline of the report

The study committee’s work has resulted in the 172-page document, which is divided into three parts.

Part one contains a brief introduction to the report, a series of letters to multiple audiences, a biblical and theological reflection and the section, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” which details the committee’s methodology and experience, including personal vignettes from four of the members.

Shive continued, “It is our hope that the series of letters will be seen as the interpretive lens through which to read this report.”

“We begin with the letters because we recognize that our ministry must be focused on relationships,” said Shive. “Our primary audience is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But we know that others are eager to read our report and will bring their own expectations. We want to speak directly to them in a loving and truthful way, so that they might hear the rest of what we say in light of this conversation.”

The letters are addressed to audiences that include “Our American Jewish Friends,” “Our Middle Eastern Brothers and Sisters in Christ” and “Our American Neighbors … Government Representatives and Our American Administration.”

Part two of the report contains the MESC’s 39 recommendations to this year’s General Assembly.

Part three includes study materials and appendices that the committee is asking the General Assembly to receive and commend to the church for study.

“It is a challenge to present a report of this length,” said Shive. “The temptation to lift out a sound bite to support or defend one’s position will be incredibly strong. But we prayerfully ask that everyone read the full report for themselves and make use of the additional resources at the Middle East Peace website.”

“The situation in the Middle East is too critical to do anything less,” he said.

Urgency of the situation

Within the report is a review of General Assembly policy statements on the Middle East, which date back to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The committee found that these statements have consistently called for a two-state solution with rights, dignity and security for both Israelis and Palestinians.

However, the committee’s report lifts up the growing urgency to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The real concern that we all embrace is that the window of opportunity for an end to the occupation and the viability of a two-state solution is rapidly closing. This is due in large part to the rapid growth of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the increasing number of bypass roads, the injustice of the separation barrier, and tragic numbers of house demolitions.”

The report continues, “A just and lasting peace and security for Israel is possible when the occupation has ended and the Palestinian acts of violent resistance are no longer employed. A just and lasting peace and security for the Palestinians is possible when the occupation has ended and Israel does not need to resort to military force to maintain its illegal land possession. If there were no occupation, there would be no Palestinian resistance. If there was no Palestinian resistance, Israelis could live in peace and security.”

“Inexcusable acts of violence have been committed by both the powerful occupying forces of the Israeli military and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank, as well as the Palestinians, of whom a relatively small minority has resorted to violence as a means of resisting the occupation.”

The committee concludes, “Violence is not an acceptable means to peace, regardless of its rationale.”

Dwindling presence of Christian community

Another pressing issue addressed in the MESC report is the diminishing population of Christians in the Middle East.

The report says, “The Christian community has maintained an unbroken presence and witness in Jerusalem since Pentecost, gradually spreading throughout Palestine, the Middle East and the Mediterranean world. There is continuing concern about the numbers of Christians remaining in the Middle East and particularly in Palestine. This was the message that was clearly heard from our Christian partners, particularly in Lebanon and Israel.”

“This dwindling presence of Christians in the Middle East is a deep concern due to the role that Christians have played in being a mediating, reconciling presence. Without that presence, we fear a more religiously polarized Middle East, more prone to extremism.”

Recommendations

The committee’s 39 recommendations to the 219th General Assembly are as detailed and extensive as the report itself.

In their introductory comments to the recommendations, committee members write that they seek to strengthen the PC(USA)’s “past positions on behalf of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the cessation of violence by all parties, and its opposition to Israel’s ongoing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and its continuing occupation of those territories.”

The comments continue, “We also call upon the various Palestinian political factions to negotiate a unified government prepared to recognize Israel’s existence. We proclaim our alarm and dismay — both over the increasingly rapid exodus of Christians from Israel/Palestine caused by anti-Palestinian discrimination and oppression, the growth of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, and the occupation-related absence of economic opportunity; and also over the exodus of Christians from other parts of the region caused by various military, economic, religious, and cultural factors. And we oppose the government of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its sponsorship of international guerilla warfare, and the threat these pose both to Israel and to Arab states.”

The committee writes, “We deeply value our relationships with Jews and Muslims in the United States, Israel, and the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East. Yet the bonds of friendship must neither prevent us from speaking nor limit our empathy for the suffering of others. Inaction and silence on our part enable actions we oppose and consequences we grieve. We recognize how great a burden past misguided actions by our government have placed on Christians throughout the Muslim world. We recognize that massive amounts of U.S tax money are feeding the various conflicts in the Middle East — including two current wars of arguable necessity and Jewish settlements in Palestine.”

And finally, “We also recognize that our concern to end support for both violence in all its forms and the ongoing occupation and settlement of Palestine places demands of integrity on how the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) uses its own resources and investments. Let us be clear: We do affirm the legitimacy of Israel as a state, but consider the continuing occupation of Palestine (West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem) to be illegitimate, illegal under international law, and an enduring threat to peace in the region. Furthermore, we recognize that any support for that occupation weakens the moral standing of our nation internationally and our security.”

Interest in the PC(USA)’s approach to an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been intensified since the General Assembly’s action in 2004 to begin the processing of divesting from companies whose activities support continued human rights violations in Israel/Palestine.

This year, two PC(USA) presbyteries are sending overtures to the General Assembly that call for divestment from Caterpillar because the company sells equipment to the Israeli army for use in the demolition of homes, the uprooting of olive trees and the maintenance of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

However, the MESC report does not endorse divestment. Instead, the committee has chosen to echo the wording of a recommendation to the assembly by the Mission Responsibility through Investment (MRTI) committee, which calls for the General Assembly to denounce Caterpillar’s continued profit-making from nonpeaceful uses of a number of its products.

Shive said, “We prefer to strengthen our engagement with companies, especially Caterpillar. Let’s remain at the table and keep the conversation going.”

The MESC report will be considered by the 219th General Assembly (2010), first in committee and then on the floor of the full assembly. If the General Assembly as a whole approves the report and recommendations, it will then become official PC(USA) policy.

The committee is all too aware of the deeply felt passion on every side of these issues. All the more reason for their report, says Shive. “These are conversations we need to be having, uncomfortable as they are. It is urgent that the church speak and do so clearly. Christians are leaving the Middle East because hope for a comprehensive peace is fading in the region.”

“We just hope it’s not too late.”

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