U.S. Ecumenical Peace Delegation Meets Israeli Leaders

Contact: Jim Solheim, press officer
Notre Dame Center
Tel: (973-2)627-9111

Episcopal News Service
New York City, NY USA
Tel: 800-334-7626

Website: www.loga.org or www.loga.org/delegationhome.htm


[Ecumenical Delegation to Jerusalem
December 7-12, 2000]

December 12, 2000

Peace delegation meets Israeli leaders, issues final statement at press conference

By James Solheim

JERUSALEM, December 12, 2000--On its last day in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, an ecumenical peace delegation of American church leaders met with the mayor of Jerusalem, officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the top Palestinian leader in Jerusalem—and issued a final statement at a press conference.

The final statement said that the delegation "heard the voices of people…seen the impact of Israeli settlements that strangulate and isolate the Palestinian people from one another…heard the terror in the voices of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Christians and Muslims alike…We believe that our faith calls us to tell the truth of what we have seen and that, unless we share with the world what we have seen, the stones will cry out. We are persuaded that the peace which must come for all—Israeli and Palestinian alike—can only be achieved on a firm foundation of justice."

The statement made "an urgent plea that all parties heed the moral imperative to do justice," and urges "the community of nations and all people who love mercy to recognize and condemn this new apartheid that oppresses the Palestinian people."

In order to achieve peace, the statement said, it is necessary that Israel withdraw from Palestinian areas to the 1967 borders, in fulfillment of the U.N. resolutions. It also offered some steps to achieve justice:

*both sides cease all acts of violence;

*Israeli forces end the use of disproportionate force;

*suspend current sales of U.S. attack helicopters to Israel;

*stop Israeli confiscation of land, house demolitions, closures, destruction of agriculture and expansion of settlements;

*provide immediate international protection for Palestinians;

*seek accountability for U.S. aid to Israel;

*provide humanitarian aid for the Palestinians; and

*devise a plan to share the city of Jerusalem.

Press conference expands on statement

At a press conference, members of the delegation described their encounters during the visit and expanded on their statement.

Bishop Vincent Warner of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia (Washington) said that his encounter with a nine-year-old girl in the area south of Gaza City where the Israelis had bulldozed an orchard put a "human face on the suffering." And that is why, he said, "the statement is passionate and urgent."

In answering a question, Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) said that the impression that American churches tend to give greater support to the Israelis is "sometimes based on a reading of Scripture that says that this land should belong to the Jews." On the other hand, he said that he has concluded that "this is a justice issue." Palestinians whose families go back centuries are being uprooted. "We are here to protect their rights while advocating the rights of the Israelis," he said.

Bishop Edmond Browning, former presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, responded to a question about the delegation's strategy by stating that members plan to contact members of Congress and "tell the story of what we have witnessed."

And the delegation is determined to raise the issue of Palestinian suffering in the churches they represent, both nationally and internationally, suggesting ways that the church can be involved in the search for peace.

Bishop Margaret Payne of the ELCA's New England Synod said that she had seen "the damage that violence does to all parties," convincing her that "all parties must cease violent acts" if there is any chance for peace.

Jerusalem most tolerant city in world

"No matter what, you can believe that the Israeli people will do everything in their power to maintain religious freedom," Mayor Ehud Olmert said in welcoming the delegation to the council room at City Hall. "It's our source of pride."

Olmert said that "not a single city in the world hosts more churches," adding that it was his responsibility "to make sure that every Christian believer can come to the city at any time to practice their religion without restriction."

He pointed out that the Old City's one square kilometer has "more holy sites than other city in the world." And he said that, since the war in 1967 when Israel took the eastern part of the city, "we have protected religious freedom in a glorious manner—the best in history."

Olmert argued that Ariel Sharon's controversial visit to the Temple Mount area last September, an area dominated by two of Islam's holiest sites, was an exercise of his religious freedom. "If Jews can't visit Temple Mount, then what's the meaning of religious freedom?"

He said that "nothing was desecrated, not one stone was moved." While the visit might have been a mistake, "the answer to this mistake is shooting?" He added, "In the middle of war, there will be some problems…some provocations," but that everything must be seen in context.

The mayor told his visitors that "you are our best partners," especially since "some societies in the region don't share our sense of democracy."

He admitted that "we make mistakes. We are under pressure. We are encircled by many whose tolerance is in doubt. It leads us to wrong reactions."

No reason for emigration

The State of Israel is serious about freedom of religion, access to holy sites, security and helping and assisting all religions, according to officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry who are in charge of religious affairs.

When asked about the emigration of Christians, Ariel Kenneth said that the phenomenon actually goes back to the seventh century when Muslims captured the Holy Land, triggering an exodus of Christians.

The Christian population actually increased after the creation of the State of Israel because they were offered a safe environment with good education and a standard of living. In those areas under Palestinian control, however, there has been significant emigration because of the violence.

"There is no reason for emigration from Israel," said Avi Granot. In fact, Israel has been absorbing a large number of Christians from places like Russia and Ethiopia. He is convinced that "a whole heritage is being lost when cities like Bethlehem become Muslim."

When asked about complaints by Christians about access to religious sites and a perception that they are second-class citizens, Kenneth said, "Israel doesn't want to cause any harm to the Christian population" but it must apply some constrictions because of the war mentality.

"There is no freedom in the land when there is war," he said. "We hold Arafat responsible for turning back to violence."

"You are talking about difficulty of movement during a time of war. Of course there are limitations—but without exception it is because of the need for security." That is why, for example, only Muslims over the age of 45 are allowed to pray at the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa in the Old City.

He said that the violence in Beit Jala, a town near Bethlehem that has been the scene of shelling, is not the work of Christians or local residents. Those who are shooting at the nearby settlement at Gilo are actually hoping that Israel will respond, to gain some sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Israel has the ability to pinpoint the source of shooting, he said, and is capable of responding quickly.

Kenneth said that there are lists of Christians and Muslims and their contributions to the intifada and "we may be doing the Christians a favor."

Logic not violence

"Our problem will not be solved by violence but by the power of logic," said Faisal Husseini in welcoming the delegation to Orient House in eastern Jerusalem.

But the Palestine National Authority's top representative in Jerusalem said that "not only throwing stones and shooting are violence but also the destruction of homes by soldiers is violence and the use of identity cards that consider people as foreigners in their own city."

"There will be no solution, no stability, without solving the Palestinian problem," Husseini warned. "And that means a Palestinian state."

Because small states seem less viable at this time in history, Husseini envisions a regional cooperation. But that raises other obstacles in the search for peace, including Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem, return of Palestinian refugees, settling the property claims of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Palestinians accept two states, even though it means that "Palestinians are willing to settle for only 22 percent of what was our original land—because we want a better life for our children."

The Israeli settlements, he said, are illegal and are "a time bomb that could explode at any moment." Unless the issue is solved, "We could find ourselves fighting each other like the Serbs and Bosnians." There is no way that Palestinians could accept settlements in their state because "It would cut the Palestinian state into islands."

On refugees, Husseini said that there are about four million Palestinians living abroad and that Israel must accept the principle that those Palestinians have a right to return. But that should be implemented in a way that would not threaten the Israelis, he said.

"There is still a possibility for peace," he concluded, while making it clear that making peace is very difficult.

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--Jim Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information and is serving as press officer for the peace delegation.
To follow the stories and photos check the Web site of the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs: www.loga.org.