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Christian leaders press Middle East stalemate solution

November 21, 2011

Washington

Christian leaders are urging the U.S. government to step up its leadership in resolving the prolonged stalemate in peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, especially in light of a recent move by Israel to establish a new settlement in East Jerusalem.

A Nov. 11 alert from the Episcopal Church’s Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) calls on Episcopalians and other religious advocates to write President Barack Obama asking him to state his “clear and forthright public support for the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital for both Israel and a future Palestinian state.”

The alert, which is received by more than 25,000 subscribers, acknowledged the Episcopal Church’s support for a solution “that would have a secure and universally recognized state of Israel living alongside a viable and secure Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of each."

Earlier in the week, leaders of several Christian denominations met at the White House with Dennis Ross, special assistant to Obama, and Catherine Powell, director for human rights. The leaders essentially are “calling for a stronger U.S. voice and stronger U.S. leadership,” Ellen Massey, deputy director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), the national Christian coalition that arranged the meeting, said in an e-mail to Episcopal News Service.

The leaders asked during the Nov. 8 meeting that the United States be more forceful in opposing new Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, saying that such action “threatens the possibility of a viable future Palestinian state,” according to CMEP, which includes 24 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant national church bodies and faith-based organizations.

Religious leaders present at the meeting included Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori; Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Denis James Madden, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chairman-elect of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Neil Irons, executive secretary of the Methodist Council of Bishops; and Sara Lisherness, director of compassion, peace and justice for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The church leaders expressed support for the vision of peace presented in Obama’s May 2011 speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he endorsed the 1967 borders, with land swaps, as an appropriate starting point for negotiations.

Prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, which occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Since 1967, Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, and while it has mainly allowed universal access to the holy sites, “it has made movement into Jerusalem functionally difficult or impossible for Christians living in the West Bank.

“Moreover, Israel gradually has seized Palestinian land in and around East Jerusalem for the construction of Israeli settlements,” EPPN said, noting that 5,700 new residential units were announced this fall alone.

“The rapid construction of Israeli settlements in and around East Jerusalem complicates any future peace deal involving Israel living alongside a Palestinian state,” the alert continued. Obama “has yet to specifically declare his support for a shared Jerusalem, and thus the Israeli government has felt little pressure from the United States to cease construction efforts.”

The United Nations, following separate meetings on Nov. 14 with leaders on both sides, called on Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct talks.

“Today’s discussions are a follow-up to similar meetings held last month, at which both sides agreed to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months,” according to a U.S. news release.

The series of meetings are part of a strategy launched in September by the Middle East Quartet ― composed of the U.N., the European Union, Russia and the United States ― to bring the two sides together again following the breakdown in bilateral talks in September 2010 after Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory.

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