Christianity and the Middle East: MECC Plans 1994 Conference on Regional Development

By Walz, L. Humphrey | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1993 | Go to article overview

Christianity and the Middle East: MECC Plans 1994 Conference on Regional Development


Walz, L. Humphrey, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Christianity and the Middle East: MECC Plans 1994 Conference on Regional Development

Economic deterioration in the Middle East and the lack of regional economic cooperation complicate the efforts of the churches to meet the needs of the poor, to overcome injustices and to enhance the prospects for peace. The Middle East Council of Churches is, therefore, inviting churches and related agencies to send economists, sociologists, theologians, social workers and "interdisciplinary professionals in the field of humanitarian service and development" to a Jan. 24-28 consultation in Limassol, Cyprus, to "help the churches exchange experiences, formulate a common vision in the fields of service and economic justice and establish common guidelines for a more effective and relevant involvement in the moral and material development of the region."

A preparatory work group of eight distinguished leaders from Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and the U.N. spent two days in discussion to raise questions and highlight problems for the conference to face.

These included the "need for economic development micro-studies to provide solid information on which to base programs; the growing gap between the rich and the poor, an increase in poverty generally, and the shrinking of a middle class; increased spending on military priorities and armaments to the detriment of development; conflict and instability leading to large populations of displaced and refugees; heavy reliance on imports from abroad, mainly the West; lack of democracy in many countries and the related lack of long-term economic planning; lack of understanding of the role of women in an economy and in economic development planning; the harsh socio-economic conditions caused by the Israeli closure of the occupied Palestinian territories; the devastating effect of sanctions on the Iraqi population; heavy external debts of most Middle East countries; brain drain to the West and muscle drain within the Arab world; ethnic and religious nationalism growing to the detriment of regional cooperation; until now, the lagging settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the crippling effects of high population growth in various parts of the region; the particularly high rate of Christian emigration from the region; emphasis on a free market mentality, on pragmatism, even opportunism, at the expense of national income distribution; and general economic decline and diminishing revenue coming to the region."

Tri-Faith Acclaim for Holsts

Editor James M. Wall has brought the Christian Century into the ranks of those who would like to see Norway's foreign minister, Johan Holst, and his wife, Marianne Heilberg, become jointly the next Nobel Peace Prize laureates. Active supporters of Lutheran World Relief and ecumenical peacemaking endeavors, it was they who turned their Oslo home into the most significant site yet for international Christian-Jewish-Muslim discourse. Without such a setting, the first joint public step--however limited or tentative--on the rocky road toward PLO-Israeli peaceful coexistence could never have been taken.

Wall became acquainted with this remarkable couple at a 1988 Aspen Institute seminar in Colorado. It was there that he learned about Heilberg's Norwegian research team on West Bank living conditions under occupation. Three years later he talked with her again in Arab East Jerusalem, where her team's work had led to acquaintance with Yossi Beilin, a young official in the then-out-of-power Israeli Labor Party. The June 1992 defeat of the Likud coalition propelled Beilin into office as deputy foreign minister. Through this and other Israeli and Palestinian connections, the Holsts were able to create what Wall calls "the back channels of communication that 18 months later produced the agreement" symbolized by the Arafat-Rabin handshake on the White House lawn.

The interfaith aspects of the secret preparatory conversations helped spur the U. …

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