1998 NCC News Archives

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Mr. Arafat's First Stop in New York September 26 --
A Reception Hosted by the (U.S.) National Council of Churches

NEW YORK, Sept. 26, 1998 ---- Over the past 20 years, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has hosted many official delegations and study groups from the (U.S.) National Council of Churches and its member denominations, all long-time advocates for Palestinian self-determination as a requirement for real peace in the Middle East.

This afternoon, the NCC had the opportunity to return the favor. A reception at the New York City apartment of the NCC’s General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Joan Campbell, was Mr. Arafat’s first appointment upon arrival from Europe to participate in the United Nations General Assembly.

Dr. Campbell and the 40 or so others on hand rehearsed the protocol of such a visit, designating the bishops to greet the guest of honor first. Dr. Campbell brought out a Palestinian shawl that Mr. Arafat had given her on one of her visits to the Middle East and draped it across the back of the chair where Mr. Arafat was to sit.

In the midst of tight security, Mr. Arafat was greeted formally in the apartment house lobby by Dr. Campbell; Metropolitan Philip Saliba of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese; Mr. Gabriel Habib, NCC consultant on international affairs and former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, and Mr. David Weaver, NCC Middle East Secretary.

But from the moment he arrived at the apartment itself, Mr. Arafat set his own course. He plunged – democratically, one might say – into the living room crowd, shaking hands left and right.

One of the first persons he singled out to greet was the cook. Along the way, he exchanged a soul handshake with a teenaged boy, fed a meatball hors d’oeuvre to a three-year-old, posed for dozens of pictures -- including one with Dr. Campbell’s Jewish houseguests -- and embraced the Lebanese-American doorman, who came to the reception to thank Mr. Arafat for saving his aunt’s life during the civil war in Lebanon. (She was part of a group of nuns taken hostage, then released following Mr. Arafat’s intervention.)

Mr. Arafat never made it to his designated chair, but he did stand still long enough to exchange formal greetings with Dr. Campbell and to take a few questions.

Dr. Campbell commented that those assembled included bishops and mission agency executives of the NCC’s member communions, along with senior NCC staff. She recalled her first meeting with Mr. Arafat in 1979, arranged by Mr. Habib.

Mr. Arafat gave a brief update on the peace process, noting that he would meet with U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright that same evening and with President Clinton on Tuesday.

"President Clinton says he wishes for progress because it will have a beneficial impact on the whole of the Middle East, as the Palestinian problem is the central one in the Middle East," said Mr. Arafat, who is Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee and President of the Palestine National Authority.

Awaiting formal response from the Israeli government is a U.S. proposal for the second phase of the Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank, that would transfer 13 percent of the land to the Palestine National Authority, reserving three percent as a restricted nature preserve for the interim period.

"We accepted the Americans’ initiative eight months ago," Mr. Arafat said, "but we are still waiting for a comparable yes from the Israelis. We’ve got to continue to be optimistic. The last poll found that 64 percent of Israelis support the peace process and the American initiative. It’s our reason for hope."

Dr. Dale L. Bishop, General Secretary of the United Church of Christ Board for World Ministries and former Middle East Secretary for the NCC, the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), thanked Mr. Arafat for his leadership in the Palestine National Authority to create an environment in which all religious traditions are respected and for his "special care to make the Christian community feel secure."

"We are proud as Palestinians," Mr. Arafat replied, "that our relationship with our Christian community is a very, very strong one." He introduced two Christian members of his entourage, and encouraged those present to "come to Bethlehem" to join Bethlehem 2000, the official interfaith celebrations of the millennium, recognizing it’s "not just a Palestinian occasion and not just a Christian occasion. It’s really a Christian, a Muslim and an international occasion and even some Jewish groups will be participating."

Dr. Campbell encouraged Mr. Arafat to mention to Mrs. Albright that he had just been hosted by the NCC, "and that a strong group of U.S. Christians wants the peace process carried out. Bring her our greetings and tell her lots of Americans are watching."

Thirty-four Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican denominations (communions) with, in turn, 52 million congregants, work together as members in the National Council of Churches, the nation’s leading ecumenical organization.

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