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U.S. Church Leaders
Conclude Their 12-Day Middle East Visit
By Jim Wetekam*
April 26, 2002, JERUSALEM - The final day of a twelve-day U.S. church leaders visit through the Middle East came to a late-night conclusion in Jerusalem on Friday, April 26. The delegation wrapped up with dinner, during which it met with Canon Andrew White of Coventry Cathedral in England. Canon White has been the only church representative involved in the negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government over the standoff at the Church of the Nativity.
During Friday afternoon, most of the group accompanied food aid deliveries to Bethlehem and Beit Jala. In all, five truckloads of supplies were provided by the Near East Council of Churches, Action by Churches Together, and the Rosary Sisters School in Beit Hanina, Jerusalem. Each of the 600 cartons of food should supply a family of five with enough food for two to three weeks. Due to the standoff at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem was under curfew, so the Israeli military escorted the trucks and the delegation through deserted Bethlehem streets.
On Friday morning, a lively meeting was held with Gadi Golan, Director of Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The delegation had requested before the trip departed and again upon reaching Jerusalem meetings with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and with Rabbi Michael Melchior, Deputy Foreign Minister of Israel. Rabbi Melchior was traveling and had to decline at the last minute; the delegation never received a response regarding its hoped-for meeting with Mr. Sharon.
Mr. Golan attacked the ways in which indigenous Christian leaders related to Israel. "When it comes to Israel," he said, "we definitely have a problem when it comes to Christianity. Most of the Christian bishops here have a problem with the Jewishness of Jesus." The church delegation argued that it had met with many of Jerusalems Christian Patriarchs and that this was not true. Mr. Golan persisted: "The future of Christianity in the Middle East lies with the State of Israel," he stated, implying that an "Israeli Jewish pluralistic society" would do more to enhance Christianity than those who had been its guardians in the Holy Land for 2000 years.
The group met next with Rabbi David Rosen, head of interfaith relations for the American Jewish Committee. This, too, was a dynamic exchange, but Rabbi Rosen gave a much more nuanced view of the current situation in Israeli society and within Christian, Muslim, and Jewish relations. Rabbi Rosen spoke extensively of the ways in which both Palestinians and Israelis view themselves "as the victim and as vulnerable," saying that "each side sees itself as under assault, [and] the culture of incitement has become the norm." He heartily endorsed U.S. involvement in the peace process and particularly in helping to re-develop the Palestinian infrastructure. The need to insure that Palestinian society becomes self-sufficient," said the rabbi, "is in the security interests of both the Israelis and Palestinians."
On Thursday evening the church delegation had met with Rabbi Ron Kronish, Director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and with Yehezkel Landau, Administrative Director for Open House.
Also on Friday, the delegation met with Ron Schlicher, Consul General for the U.S. in Jerusalem, and with Jessica Barry of the International Committee for the Red Cross. The delegation concluded the afternoon by conducting a roundtable with staff members of churches, aid organizations, and other non-profit groups working in Israel and Palestine.
The delegation of 14 church leaders, sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., was invited to the region by the Middle East Council of Churches.
*Jim Wetekam, Media Program Director for Churches for Middle East Peace, is a member of the NCC delegation.
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