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Middle East Church Leader Pleads for Diplomacy, Not War

October 29, 2002, NEW YORK CITY -- The General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches has issued a plea to U.S. churches to press for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the Iraq crisis and to "speak to your government to stop any military offensive."

"If war takes place against Iraq," said the Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, "the whole region will be in chaos. We are all scared. Help us survive with dignity."

He also called on U.S. Christians to press for third-country mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to continue to work to build understanding and respect among Christians and Muslims.

Dr. Jarjour issued his plea to the Board of Directors of Church World Service, during the board’s fall meeting October 22-23 in South Bend, Ind., and in a subsequent interview. He serves on the board.

Church World Service is an international humanitarian agency of the 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member denominations of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches. The Middle East Council of Churches is the ecumenical voice of most of the Middle East’s Christians, comprising the members of 28 Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.

The two organizations collaborate on programs of humanitarian assistance across the Middle East. Since 1991, Church World Service has provided some $3 million in blankets, food, medical supplies, "Gift of the Heart" School and Health Kits and other aid for families and children in Iraq through the Middle East Council of Churches and other partners. A recent shipment for distribution by the Mennonite Central Committee included 28,000 school kits, and in 2001 CWS sent $160,000 worth of sewing and health kits to MCC, along with $10,000 to help purchase bed sheets for needy hospitals.

CWS has provided some $3.5 million in the past decade for emergency relief and community development among Palestinians through the MECC and other partners. A diverse array of programs to address malnutrition, unemployment, mother and child health and other needs serve Palestinians in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and have included emergency food, job creation programs, medical supplies and infrastructure development - including land use, roads and water development.

Dr. Jarjour expressed empathy for residents of Washington, D.C., where "one sniper traumatized the whole city." In turn, he called on Americans to "think of our region and the number of people who would be killed every day in a military offensive and how much the people would suffer."

All that an attack on Iraq would do, he said, is "cause more destruction, and the humiliation of the Iraqi people. The sanctions already have done so much harm. Thousands of babies are dying. Mothers are suffering. Old people are in hospitals. The Iraqi people are asking for peace. What is needed is a diplomatic solution that would affect not only Iraq but the whole region."

Dr. Jarjour also asked U.S. Christians to "hear the cries of Palestinians and Israelis for justice and peace that gives everyone dignity in a country of hatred and vengeance. All there is now is war," he said. "People are being uprooted from their land, imprisoned and tortured. There’s need of a third party to intervene."

The United States, with its policy of support for the Israeli government, has forfeited its opportunity to play that role, but it can press Israelis and Palestinians to accept mediation by a third party that both trust, he suggested.

So much is at stake - among other things, the survival of Christians in the region, Dr. Jarjour said. "Day after day, people are leaving the region. Now only one percent of the population of Jerusalem is Christian." One of the Middle East Council of Churches’ biggest challenges is "how to keep a Christian presence in Jerusalem and the whole region."

Finally, Dr. Jarjour urged Christians to work to build respect among Christians and Muslims and to seek out an accurate understanding of Islam -- rather than the false one created by the tragic events of September 11 and the actions of a few extremists.   "Many Muslims in the Arab world sympathize with you for what happened on September 11," Dr. Jarjour said.

The Middle East Council of Churches has a strong interfaith relations program, which "helped a lot after September 11 and even after Jerry Falwell’s remarks" calling the Prophet Muhammed "a terrorist."

Many Muslims were angry, but because of their relationship with the MECC they understood that Falwell did not represent all U.S. Christians, Dr. Jarjour said. Many U.S. Christians - including the National Council of Churches - promptly repudiated Falwell’s statement, made during an interview for the CBS-TV program "60 Minutes."

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