Church Leaders Press Powell on Middle East Violence
By KEVIN ECKSTROM
June 7, 2001 Religion News Service

    WASHINGTON -- A delegation of powerful church leaders pressed Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday (June 7) to urge Israel to halt controversial settlements in Palestinian territories and end U.S. shipments of military aid that are used against the Palestinians.

    Presenting a strongly worded letter to Powell, the church delegation called the continuing Middle East violence a "cancer that threatens the health of the whole region."

    "Israel's practice of assassination and economic strangulation of the fledgling Palestinian state are counterproductive to either security or peace," the letter said.

    In the highest-level meeting with the administration to date, church leaders said Powell was "very receptive" to their concerns about the ongoing violence and was "engaged in a very spirited discussion."

    Led by Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, the delegation also included Pittsburgh Bishop Donald J. McCoid, chairman of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Dallas Bishop William Oden, past president of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church; and John L. McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, the humanitarian arm of the National Council of Churches.

    Griswold said he was impressed with Powell's knowledge during the 30-minute meeting at the State Department, and said Powell sees a role for the churches to help end the violence.

    "He called upon us to use our voices to shout from the steeples to invite all people to commit themselves to nonviolence," Griswold said.

    Spearheaded by Churches for Middle East Peace, an ecumenical group of mostly mainline Protestant denominations, the church leaders took a hard line with Israel and said the Jewish state has been too harsh in its treatment of Palestinians.

    Their letter deplored the "destructive impact of Israel's settlement policy" and Israel's use of "heavy weapons against civilians."

    "While we condemn the violent words and actions of Palestinians, we understand the rage that comes from decades of occupation, dislocation and the feeling of having been betrayed by the peace process," the letter said.

    Oden said the letter was not biased against Israel but that church leaders condemned both the Israeli military attacks and Palestinian suicide bombers.

    "I don't believe the letter was tilted toward the Palestinians and was not even-handed," Oden said. "The security of Israel is important to the United States, as is the independence of Palestine."

    As both sides struggle to maintain a fragile cease-fire, the ongoing violence in the Middle East has slowly trickled into the life of U.S. religious bodies. Last week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Jewish Reform movement's congregational arm, lashed out against Israel for its settlement policies and cancelled summer youth trips to Israel.

    Many churches have struggled with the violence, torn by empathy for the Palestinians and loyalty to the Jewish people, with whom they share important spiritual roots.

    McCoid said the delegation was particularly concerned for Palestinian Christians, who have been affected by the violence as much as their Muslim neighbors. McCullough decried the system of "apartheid," which keeps Palestinian and Israeli neighbors separate, and the economic conditions that keep unemployment as high as 70 percent.

    Griswold said he was confident that Powell sees a role for U.S. churches in the peace process and wants to explore ties to other Christian churches in the Middle East. He said Anglican colleagues in Jerusalem urged him to present their concerns directly to Powell.

    "We certainly felt we had established a working relationship and he would be happy to work with us in the future," Griswold said.

 

June 7, 2001

The Honorable Colin Powell
Secretary of State
United States Department of State
 

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We are grateful that you have given us this opportunity to meet with you and are mindful of the additional heads of U.S. churches who joined us in signing this letter.  We come with thanks for the wise and strong leadership you are giving to our government's State Department.  We come with support for your effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of violence and rebuild the trust and mutual confidence that are critical for a negotiated settlement.

There is no higher priority for peacemaking in the world today than that between Israel and the Palestinians.  This long and tragic conflict is a cancer that threatens the health of the whole region, U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim countries, and interfaith relations worldwide. We, particularly those of us who have precious partnerships with our sister churches in the Holy Land, offer our prayers and encouragement to our government in this crucial work.

Along with many others, we are deeply concerned that the peace process has broken down so violently and tragically between the government of Israel and the Palestinian leadership.  The sobering current reality compels us to take a higher profile in advocacy of U.S. policies conducive to peace.

Few things have done more to destroy the hope and pursuit of peace through negotiations than Israel's unrelenting settlement activity.  Over these recent years, we have heard from our Palestinian Christian partners, and seen for ourselves, the destructive impact of Israel's settlement policy -- separating village from village, confiscating more and more Palestinian land, creating friction with its military checkpoints.  For over twenty years our churches have appealed to the U.S. government to require Israel to cease this transfer of its civilian population into occupied territory, a clear violation of international law and United Nations resolutions.  Each administration has spoken in opposition to the settlement activity, only to watch the settlements increase and expand as Israel ignores the advice.

It is time for the United States to do what it must to bring Israel's settlement activity to an end.  We urge you to make clear to Israel and the Palestinians that the United States is committed to a negotiated end of Israel's military occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem as called for in U.N.S.C. Res. 242 and that an immediate freezing by Israel of its settlement activity including "natural growth" is imperative.  It will likely require considerable diplomatic pressure, and possibly economic pressure as well, to convince the government of Israel to recognize that this is a major policy concern of the United States.

Breaking the cycle of violence is fundamental to restarting the peace process and rebuilding the hope and will for peace.  While we condemn the violent words and actions of Palestinians, we understand the rage that comes from decades of occupation, dislocation and the feeling of having been betrayed by the peace process.  We appeal to the Palestinians, as have you, to abandon violence as a means to end the occupation.

We understand as well Israel's quest for security for the state and its people, but condemn the disproportionately violent and destructive means it is using.   Israel's practice of assassination and the economic strangulation of the fledgling Palestinian state are counterproductive to either security or peace.  We hope that Israel is responsive to your appeal that it lift the siege of Palestinian towns and pay the taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority.  We call upon Israel to abandon military force and return to negotiations as the path to security.

A delegation of church leaders on a December pastoral visit saw the destruction wrought by Israel's military might on the homes and livelihood of the Christian towns of Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.  The delegation urged that the United States suspend the current sales of attack helicopters to Israel pending investigation of their use against civilian targets as well as assurances that they will be used in conformity with United States law covering "end-use" in our weapons sales.  We ask you to place a hold on any pending delivery of attack helicopters or fighter jets to Israel and to reconsider the promise made by the Clinton Administration that the United States will increase military aid to Israel for each of the next eight years. While we recognize that it has been U.S policy to support Israel militarily in order to insure its security and to encourage it to move forward with confidence in negotiations, the use of F-16 fighter jets against civilian populations is unacceptable and must be challenged by the U.S. government.  Like the U.S. effort to stop settlement activity, stopping the use of these heavy weapons against civilians will require considerable diplomatic pressure and possibly economic pressure.

Although our concern extends to each person suffering from this conflict, we are extremely worried about our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters.  Facing daily threats from violence and economic deprivation and lacking hope for peace and a viable Palestinian state, many feel the pressure to emigrate. The demise of the living Christian community from the birthplace of the Christian religion would certainly be an irreparable tragedy for the Middle East and the Christian community internationally.  For their sake, and for the sake of all, we seek a restoration of hope for a negotiated sharing of the Holy Land and the city of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims.  We tremble to consider the destructive consequences that would follow the premature moving, as called for by Congress, of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

We have heard the cries of fear and mourning of Palestinian Christians and Muslims and of Israeli Jews and pray for their healing and the reconciliation of the Abrahamic family.  Be assured of our prayers for you and the President and all others in the Administration as you seek to forge a fair and just policy for the two peoples and three faiths who share a common religious heritage in the land we hold as holy.

Sincerely Yours,

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop and Primate, The Episcopal Church

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

The Very Rev. Brother Stephen Michael Glodek, S.M., President, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Mens' Institutes

Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director, Church World Service

Bishop Donald J. McCoid, Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod, Chair, Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Rev. Fr. Alexander Karloutsos for Bishop Dimitrios of Xanthos, Ecumenical Officer
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Bishop William B. Oden, Immediate Past President, The Council of Bishops,
The United Methodist Church
 

The following heads of churches and faith-based organizations join the delegation in this expression of concern and appeal to Secretary of State Colin Powell:

Bishop McKinley Young, Presiding Bishop, 10th Episcopal District, African Methodist Episcopal Church

The Rev. Dr. Robert H. Roberts, Interim General Secretary, American Baptist Churches USA

Mary Ellen McNish, General Secretary, American Friends Service Committee

Metropolitan PHILIP, Primate,  Antiochian Orthodox Christian, Archdiocese of North America

The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Hamm, General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

Rev. Judy Mills Reimer, Executive Director, Church of the Brethren General Board

The Rev. H. George Anderson, Presiding Bishop, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Michael E. Livingston, Executive Director,International Council of Community Churches

Rev. Dr. Seung Koo Choi, General Secretary of Korean Presbyterian Church in America

Dr. Ron J. R. Mathies , Executive Director, Mennonite Central Committee

Rev. R. Burke Johnson, President, Moravian Church - Northern Province

Rev. Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk, Presbyterian Church (USA)

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary, Reformed Church in America

Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim, Archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch for the Eastern USA

John Buehrens, President, Unitarian Universalist Association

The Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President, United Church of Christ

Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, Ecumenical Officer, Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church