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"By My Spirit"
What Will Make For Peace in the Middle East?

Statement By Delegation of U.S. Church Leaders to the Middle East, April 2002

"O sing to the Lord a new song,
sing to the Lord all the earth
Say among the nations, The Lord is king"
Psalm 96:1,10

We are a delegation of United States church leaders who visited Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine from April 16 to 27 under the auspices of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. (NCCCUSA). Our journey to the Middle East has been a pilgrimage for peace.

In the course of the trip, the delegation met with Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, as well as key political leaders. In each country we encountered apprehension and fear, despair, and occasionally, hate. We also experienced the resilience of the human spirit, not born from political optimism but rather through hope in the judgment and mercy of the One God worshiped by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We were heartened everywhere we went by the commitment of both religious and political leaders to seek to build bridges of dialogue and common action.

We emphasize the urgency of the crisis in the region and our sense that the Middle East and, indeed, the entire world, stands on the brink of a catastrophe if a comprehensive peace is not achieved soon. Continually, we heard pleas for outside intervention and of the urgent need for the United States to take decisive action to constrain the Government of Israel to abide by United Nations resolutions and to do so as a matter of the highest priority.

We are grateful that many local and regional religious bodies are profoundly engaged in efforts for peace, truth and reconciliation. In addition, King Abdullah II of Jordan spoke of his own commitment to interfaith dialogue. We pledged to him our support for those efforts and articulated our eagerness to work directly with him and those religious leaders he will soon bring to the United States.

We expressed our condolences and deepest sympathies to Israelis and Palestinians who have lost family members and friends to the senseless violence over the past months. Members of the delegation visited hospitalized victims in Jerusalem. Delegation members also participated in ecumenical food and medicine aid convoys to Jenin, Bethlehem, and Beit Jala where we personally witnessed the devastation caused by the Israeli Defense Forces. We were alarmed to find that the damage extends beyond fighting carried out against Palestinian resistance forces to include intentional destruction of Palestinian civil society. The impact of the Israeli invasion and destruction of Palestinian infrastructure has exacerbated the feeling of broken promises and shattered hopes. We urge the Government of Israel to cooperate fully with the United Nations investigation of events that took place in Jenin.

Throughout our journey the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem remained of grave concern. We offered our prayers and services and expressed our objection to the withholding of food, water and medical supplies to those inside the church. We discussed the situation with the leaders of the churches who are the custodians of this holy site as well as with Canon Andrew White of Coventry Cathedral in England, the only church representative directly involved in the negotiations between the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to bring a peaceful end to the siege. We asked Israelis and Palestinians to respect the sacredness of the Church of the Nativity, and of all religious sites and buildings, Christian, Muslim and Jewish.

We call upon Israel and the Palestinian Authority to agree to an immediate ceasefire, to end all attacks upon civilians and civilian institutions, and to exercise the highest degree of restraint in responding to violations of the ceasefire. We condemn equally and unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. All are counterproductive to achieving peace with justice. Repeatedly, we were asked to understand the context of desperation and hopelessness that has led Palestinian young people to be willing to kill themselves and Israeli citizens. Similarly, we were asked to understand the depth of fear among the Israeli public that has led to an intense onslaught against Palestinian refugee camps, towns, and cities. Both societies are caught in a cycle of violence and revenge.

The delegation finds that the following are critical components of a just resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

  • an end to the cycle of violence;
  • the affirmation by Palestinians and by Arab states of the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders;
  • the establishment of an international peacekeeping force, agreed upon by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to oversee the Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza and maintain order until a peace agreement can be fully implemented;
  • the end of Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza;
  • the cessation of the building of new Israeli settlements and of the expansion of existing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza;
  • abandonment, dismantling, or other disposition of settlements that negate the geographic integrity of a viable Palestinian state, under the terms of a negotiated peace agreement;
  • the sharing of Jerusalem by the two peoples and three faiths so that Jerusalem may truly reflect its name, City of Peace; and
  • the commitment by Israel to address the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

We state these concerns out of deep love, affection, and respect for Israelis and Palestinians - and because of our commitment to making real the vision of a free and independent Palestinian state living alongside a secure Israel.

Israel is a state like any other state with the same privileges and responsibilities. It is entitled to full recognition of its legitimacy within the international community, including by the Arab states. It is responsible under international law to end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza begun in l967, which holds the Palestinian people hostage. At the same time, Palestinians cannot expect to achieve the dignity, rights and respect they have sought for so long without ceasing acts of violence against the civilian population of Israel.

We are deeply concerned for the future of a viable, indigenous Christian presence in the Middle East. The Arab Christian population has declined precipitously in recent decades. Christian leaders shared with us their belief that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to halting and, hopefully, reversing this decline. This must happen quickly before Christians are left with only tiny groups of people who serve as custodians of our most holy places. Christians provide vital leaven to the entire region. Thriving, growing communities of Christians will contribute to the healing and peace process, thereby providing a bridge to reconciliation and hope.

Our delegation leaves the Middle East convinced that an enduring peace can be achieved if the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories ends and if the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure State of Israel follows soon. In the context of the World Council of Churches (WCC) "Decade to Overcome Violence," we welcome the WCC’s 2002 focus on ending the illegal occupation of Palestine and supporting a just peace in the Middle East. The delegation urges NCCCUSA member churches to support the development of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel sponsored by the WCC. We challenge our member churches and congregations to take action and become aware of and foster the ends of peace. We encourage our members to participate in the ongoing ecumenical prayer vigil for peace in the Middle East that was initiated on the First Sunday of Advent 2000.

The prophet Zechariah said, "The angel told me to give Zerubbabel this message from the Lord: 'You will succeed, not by military might or by your own strength, but by my Spirit,' says the Lord of hosts." (Zech. 4:6) The word of the Spirit in our day is a call to all people of faith to be witnesses to the way of peace. That witness begins with unceasing prayer. It calls us to be reconcilers, to stand for truth, forgiveness, and justice in every place. Only thus may we sing to the Lord a new song.

Issued April 30, 2002 by:

The Rev. Dr. Robert W. Edgar, General Secretary
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

Ms. Elenie K. Huszagh, President
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

The Rev. Janet Arbesman, Vice-Moderator
213th General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Bishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate and Ecumenical Officer
The Armenian Orthodox Church

The Rev. Mark Byron Brown
Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Washington, DC
Representing the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr., Senior Minister
The Riverside Church, New York, NY

Dr. Joe Hale
United Methodist Church
Former General Secretary of the World Methodist Council

The Rev. Robert S. Jones
National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
St. Paul’s Baptist Church, West Chester, PA

Archbishop Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim
Patriarchal Vicar of the Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church for the Eastern United States

The Rev. William Shaw, President
National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.
White Rock Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA

The Rt. Rev. Arthur E. Walmsley of Deering, NH
Representing the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

The Rev. James R. Wetekam, Media Director
Churches for Middle East Peace

Mr. James Edward Winkler, General Secretary
General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church

-end-

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