Visit of the WCC Deputy General Secretary to Jerusalem

2 - 4 April 2002

PRELIMINARY REPORT

The WCC Deputy General Secretary Mr. Georges Lemopoulos visited Jerusalem from April 2-4, with WCC International Relations Programme Executive Ms. Salpy Eskidjian. The main purpose of this visit was to meet with the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches and Christian communities of Jerusalem to discuss the present situation in Palestine/Israel and details of WCC and other ecumenical efforts in this regard. The visit was undertaken as an expression of WCC solidarity with the churches of the Holy Land and their communities. It was also planned to work out practical details related to ecumenical programs undertaken by the WCC together with its partners to seek an end to this tragic situation.

A key element of the delegation visit was a first meeting of the WCC with the newly enthroned Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Patriarch Irineos. Among the topics discussed were the important role of the Patriarchate in the WCC and its contribution to the wider ecumenical movement; the status of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC; the re-establishment of the Jerusalem Ecumenical Centre and concerns of the Patriarchate. Lemopoulos was extremely pleased with this encounter which took place in a warm, honest and fraternal atmosphere. HB Patriarch Irineos welcomed WCC efforts in supporting its member churches in diakonal, interfaith and international matters and assured the delegation of his support for strong relationships and links with the WCC. His Eminence Archbishop Aristarchos, chief secretary of the Holy Synod, was assigned to continue the co-operation with the WCC on behalf of the Patriarchate. The WCC delegation was saddened to hear that the Israeli government had not yet recognised the election of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch. The delegation offered the WCC’s good offices to intervene if called upon.

With the Patriarchs and Heads of churches, as well as local and international nuns, monks and clergy, the members of the WCC delegation joined in a peace march to the residences of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and of the US Consul General in Jerusalem, Mr. Ronald Schlicher. The church leaders walked from the Old City on a cold and rainy morning amidst an angry crowd and drivers, holding olive branches and white ribbons. The marchers carried a message of peace and an offer to mediate an end to the violence and the siege of the Palestinian towns and villages. They prayed for peace, pleaded for an end to the violence and offered their good offices as mediators. To the dismay of the church leaders and those with them, the US consulate and the Prime Minister ignored their presence and their offer of assistance.

The next morning, in response to dramatic reports coming from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the church leaders of all Christian traditions present in the Holy Land marched once again together to Bethlehem. They were confronted with tanks, guns and the Israeli Defence Forces who refused to allow them to cross the checkpoint to visit their churches, clergy and people in the birthplace of Jesus, one of the holiest sites of the Christian world.

International journalists marched with them and all church leaders gave extensive interviews condemning Israel’s re-occupation of Palestinian towns and villages, its use of excessive force, inhumane treatment of civilians, and its blatant disrespect of holy sites, churches, monasteries and Christian institutions.

The WCC delegation had extensive meetings with the Armenian and Latin Patriarchs, and the Bishops of the Episcopal and Lutheran Churches.  It also met with the Chairperson of the PLO Higher Ministerial Commission on Church Affairs, Dr Emil Jarjoui, local human rights defenders, Palestinians in Israel, medical and emergency relief staff, representatives of international and local church-related organisations, and the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee (a representative body of the Patriarchs and Heads of Churches of Jerusalem). They met, too, with HE Sheikh Jamil Hammami, a participant in a WCC-related interfaith dialogue group. It regretted that no meetings with Jewish religious leaders who also participate in the interfaith dialogue group could be arranged. It had requested to meet with Deputy FM Rabbi Michael Melchior and Rabbi David Rosen but received no direct reply until just before the delegation left for the airport, when it received a message from Geneva that Rabbi Rosen had responded to the WCC request and welcomed a meeting with the delegation. This will be followed up by telephone as soon as possible.

Due to the warlike situation and total siege, meetings could only be held in Jerusalem. The delegation regretted that it was unable to meet with many other Christian and Muslim leaders, or with colleagues and friends from Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Ramallah.

The discussions focussed on the present tragic situation, the needs and appeals of the local churches and Palestinian communities for strengthened WCC and other ecumenical efforts to alleviate the suffering of the local population living under a cruel military occupation. The delegation heard eyewitness accounts of Palestinian families confined to their homes under a total curfew in fear and humiliation. Medicines, water, electricity and food are desperately lacking. Their private homes are being violated, their belongings being looted and stolen. In some cases families were still living with the bodies of dead relatives for whom permission for burial had been denied. The Church of the Nativity, a sacred place for Christians around the world, was under threat of military attack. The delegation heard repeatedly that the IDF was destroying the civilian infrastructure on the pretext of arresting “militants and terrorists.”

The delegation condemned the terrifying loss of Palestinian and Israeli lives. It experienced first-hand the extreme fear of the Israeli civilian population and the heightened level of intolerance on both sides. It was disheartened to see young Orthodox Jewish children pelting Arab cars with stones as they entered East Jerusalem. It also heard reports on the “transfer policies” of the Israeli government that are supported by Knesset members and ministers from members of the Labour and Likud party alike. In this are to be found the seeds of racist policies that apparently intend ethnic cleansing and to spread more hatred. The delegation believes that Jewish religious leaders and members of the Israeli civil society who have engaged with the WCC and /or local churches in interfaith dialogue and peace work should take a courageous stand and speak out against such policies and acts of intolerance. Their voices are critically needed now. Mistakes of history should not be repeated. Unless they join moderate Palestinians, including the Christian religious leadership, in calling for non-violent resistance to end the occupation, the only voices heard will be those of the extremists on both sides.

The delegation condemns all acts of violence against civilians, calls for the cessation of racist policies, all provocative language and indiscriminate killings, including the desperate acts of suicide bombers.

The delegation echoes the unified voice of the local church leaders in endorsing the right of a people to resist the violence of military occupation and to struggle for its end by non-violent means. In this respect, the delegation is all the more convinced of the importance of its member churches and all national, regional and ecumenical partners joining together, following the WCC’s and the local churches’ calls for a united international ecumenical response, in the campaign in 2002 to “End the Illegal Occupation of Palestine: Support a Just peace in the Middle East”.

The churches of the Holy Land and all Palestinians are in urgent need of an objective and permanent international presence. The WCC should continue and accelerate its efforts to establish the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), despite the extremely dangerous situation and the fact that many international delegations are now being turned back when they seek to enter Israel. Plans for the accompaniment program will be reassessed on the basis of the discussions held in Jerusalem. The EAPPI should focus on co-operation with existing grassroots solidarity groups and the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron.

The State of Israel, the Occupying Power, has obligations under international law, in particular under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It cannot be allowed to continue to violate them with impunity. The WCC has called for an end to the silence and immobility of the international community and has appealed to its member churches to speak and act urgently and in unison through their respective governments to press for an international presence in the midst of this conflict. The delegation heard from all those it met that this is an immediate priority in the present situation.

Geneva, 8 April 2002