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Faith groups call for new Israeli policies toward Gaza
that include meeting human needs and ending the blockade

New York, June 3, 2010 -- The National Council of Churches and other faith groups have expressed alarm and concern over the Israeli action May 31 against an international flotilla on the high seas that led to the deaths of nine persons and the wounding of many others.

"The National Council of Churches has strongly supported Israel's right to exist with peace and security, but this attack on an aid convoy contributes to neither," said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC General Secretary.  "In fact, it undermines Israel's standing in the community of nations."

Kinnamon supported a statement released Wednesday by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) that said "the incident highlights the need for the United States to work for new, constructive Israeli policies toward Gaza that end the blockade and provide for the humanitarian need of those living there without diminishing Israel’s own security."

Kinnamon is a member of the board of CMEP, which is a coalition of 23 public policy offices of national churches and agencies -- Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.  CMEP began its work in 1984 out of the conviction that the policy perspectives and long Middle East experience of our member bodies should be more widely known in the public policy arena.  It maintains an on-going dialogue with Congress, the Administration and the diplomatic community, to advance such concerns, assessments, and advocacy positions.

Less than three months ago, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and the heads of many of CMEP’s sponsoring organizations wrote to President Obama urging him to use America’s unique relationship with Israel to persuade it to open its borders with Gaza now.  CMEP said then, “We believe this policy is strategically unsound, harms Israel’s security, and exacts an unacceptable toll on innocent Palestinians.”

The letter also said, “The perception of U.S. support for or acquiescence in the closure challenges our reputation for upholding humanitarian values. It deprives 1.4 million Palestinians of a decent, minimum standard of welfare. It restricts the use of the $300 million the United States has committed to rebuild Gaza, is a serious obstacle to restoring hope and making peace, and undermines long term Israeli security.”   Over 6,000 endorsements of this letter from CMEP supporters have been received and sent by CMEP to the White House.  

The current Israeli restrictions on trade and movement of persons in and out of Gaza have been in place since Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007.  They have limited trade in food and medicines and led to worsening unemployment and poverty among Gaza's population of 1.4 million. Restrictions on imports of building materials have limited reconstruction of housing and utilities destroyed during the war. Travel restrictions have limited opportunities for education.  

The restrictions were aimed in part at ending rocket attacks from Gaza and securing the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit.  They also had the political goal of undermining Hamas' control in Gaza.

"The blockade has not had the desired results," CMEP said. " Hamas remains in power.  Rocket attacks have not completely stopped. Smuggling of goods through tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt has become an economy of its own. Paradoxically this underground trade is controlled and taxed by Hamas.   President Obama has said that "the continuing humanitarian crisis in Gaza does not serve Israel's security interests."

The Gaza flotilla incident also underlines the necessity of pressing without delay for a comprehensive agreement for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, beginning with the indirect talks now being brokered by the United States, CMEP said. 

"This crisis and its tragic consequences must not be allowed to undermine peace efforts.  The United States should seize this opportunity to push hard now for an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has already said it plans to continue the proximity talks with Israel brokered by the United States.  The United States should help Israel find better ways to enhance its security through negotiation and a comprehensive agreement for peace."

Other ecumenical organizations and communions also issued statements in response to the Israeli attack on the flotilla.

World Council of Churches:

"It is with great distress that the World Council of Churches received the news that the Israeli naval forces stormed a Gaza-bound vessel carrying humanitarian aid in international waters before dawn on  Monday, killing at least 10 civilians and injuring many more. We condemn  the assault and killing of innocent people who were attempting to deliver humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, who have been under a crippling Israeli blockade since 2007. We further condemn the flagrant violation of international law by Israel in attacking and boarding  a humanitarian convoy in international waters. We pray for all those  who are affected by the attack, especially the bereaved families."

-- Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, General Secretary

Episcopal Church:

On behalf of the Episcopal Church, I write to express deep concern for the circumstances surrounding Israeli forces' interception of a flotilla of ships bound for the Gaza Strip earlier this week. The deaths of at least ten persons aboard one of the ships and the injury of many more, including four Israeli soldiers, represent a grave tragedy and underscore the urgency of renewed political leadership toward ending the blockade of Gaza. As we pray for those killed and wounded, and for their families, I urge your renewed attention to the status of Gaza as part of your Administration's leadership toward a two-state solution.

The full details of this week's incident are not clear. As Secretary Clinton has noted, we do not yet know the specific sequence of events that led to the outbreak of violence, and therefore our responses must be measured and thoughtful. It is clear, however, that the deaths of civilians working to deliver humanitarian aid could not have happened absent the counterproductive Israeli blockade of Gaza. The Episcopal Church strongly supports American leadership toward ending the blockade. There are far better ways to protect Israel's security and promote moderate political leadership in Gaza than a blockade that intensifies human suffering and perpetuates regional insecurity.

-- The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

On behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Lutheran World Federation, organizations that are deeply engaged with and committed to the Lutheran Christians and all persons living in Palestine and Israel, I express my deep sadness regarding events surrounding the flotilla seeking to deliver humanitarian goods to Gaza. We deeply regret the deaths and injuries that resulted when Israeli forces intercepted the boats. Our thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and the families of those killed or otherwise harmed during this incident. We note that this tragic incident occurred on the first day of the World Council of Churches’ World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel.

This incident raises many questions that must be answered. We therefore call for a full, international, and independent investigation into this matter.

While we condemn all violence in the resolution of political disputes, this incident raises a number of questions related to the just use of force. It is not clear that, in this incident, all alternatives were explored prior to the use of military force. One tenet of the just use of force is proportionality, a principle I raised during my meeting with the chief rabbis of the State of Israel during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli incursion into Gaza which lasted from December 2008 to January 2009. This incident provides an example of how proportionality is an ongoing concern related to Israeli military action against civilians, both Palestinians and internationals.

This tragic event demonstrates the urgency of achieving a just peace. One role of religious leaders, including the churches, is to strengthen those voices working for peace, rather than yielding to the clamor of extremism, as we seek a just peace beneficial for all persons in the region.

We urge that this incident not interrupt the proximity talks now being conducted through the Obama administration. Instead, we expect that this incident will intensify on all sides the commitment to serious negotiations that will lead to a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

-- The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, Presiding Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ):

As the World Council of Churches commemorates its World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel, the co-executive of Global Ministries, the joint world mission organization of the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), have asked that their member churches join in prayer for peace in the region.
Coming on the heels of an Israeli raid on an aid flotilla headed for Gaza in which 12 Turkish activists were killed and more than 10,000 tons of food and medicine seized, the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister of the UCC's Wider Church Ministries, and the Rev. David Vargas, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Division of Overseas Ministries, said they "join those the world over who have responded in indignation" to the raid and made continued calls for lifting the embargo on Gaza and the inclusion of Gaza in a two-state Israeli/Palestinian resolution.
Calling Gaza a "virtual prison" due to the air, land and sea embargo imposed by the Israeli government, the letter expresses compassion for the humanitarian crisis that has resulted.
Quoting a prayer from the heads of Jerusalem's Christian churches, the letter offers solidarity for the words, "In the land you made holy, free us all from the sin of indifference, contempt and violence which only brings hatred and killing. Free the souls and hearts of Israelis and Palestinians.
United Methodist Church

The United Methodist General Board of Church & Society (GBCS) condemns the deadly interception Monday in international waters by Israeli troops that led to the deaths of nine persons on a humanitarian aid mission to Gaza. The nine persons were part of an international "Freedom Flotilla" of six vessels carrying nearly 10,000 tons of food and medicine to Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for three years.

"We grieve the loss of life and injuries sustained in what became a tragic confrontation between the forces of peace and those of armed aggression," said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist social justice agency.

Winkler called the Israeli troops' boarding of the "Freedom Flotilla" in international waters more than just an act of high-seas piracy. "It is symptomatic of a broader, hopelessly flawed policy by Israel to subjugate the Palestinian people, allegedly to protect its own security,” he said, adding that the United States has been “complicit in this flawed policy."

Israel should end the blockade of Gaza, which has created a humanitarian crisis affecting 1.4 million Palestinians, according to Winkler. He pointed out that The United Methodist Church has long advocated for a peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict. "The violence must stop on both sides," he said. "The time for decisive action to impose a just, peaceful resolution has never been more evident that in this tragic assault on persons whose sole purpose was to achieve peace and bring aid to an oppressed populace."

Since its founding in 1950, the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA has been the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's member faith groups -- from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches -- include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation.

NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228 (office), 646-853-4212 (cell),