CHRISTIANITY AND THE MIDDLE EAST: Leaders Representing Mainline U.S. Churches Address Israeli-Palestinian Human Rights Concerns
In February, some individuals affiliated with the Christian Coalition grabbed headlines when they boycotted the appearance of Yasser Arafat at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC which also featured President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. At the very same time, newspaper editors tucked away on back pages coverage of three major statements from American religious leaders, all supporting a just and lasting peace settlement in Israel and Palestine.
The prominence given the statements representing the "anxious for Armageddon" fringe of evangelical Christians and the relative lack of attention paid to balanced statements by responsible representatives of mainline Christian and other groups is, unfortunately, typical of the media coverage of religious reaction to human rights issues in the Middle East. What the casual reader seldom realizes is that the signatories of such responsible but non-confrontational statements represent the leadership of the major denominations of Middle America.
A LETTER TO CONGRESS
Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), speaking for Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, members of the Reformed Church and the United Church of Christ, Quakers, Mennonites, and Unitarians, sent a Feb. 11 letter to all members of the 106th Congress concerning upcoming legislation affecting the Middle East peace process. (The letter can be accessed on the Churches for Middle East Peace Web page . There also is a similar letter from Corinne Whitlatch of Churches for Middle East Peace in "Other People's Mail" on p. 90 of this issue.)
A major section of the letter to Congress-members dealt with congressional fiscal decisions that affect the Middle East. Noting the disproportionate allotment of $5.4 million to the Middle East, out of a total foreign aid budget of $12.8, CMEP encouraged Congress to consider world-wide developmental needs and programs which truly promote peace.
The church leaders complimented Congress on its effort to begin restructuring foreign aid when it balanced an increase in aid to Jordan with decreases for both Israel and Egypt. They expressed disappointment, however, in alterations to the 1999 budget that redirected savings from developmental cuts into increased military assistance for Israel.
The church leaders also expressed concerns about the financial package established at the Wye Conference, calling attention to the disparity between the $1.2 billion figure for Israel while $400 million and $300 million were designated for Palestinians and Jordan respectively. Noting that the Israeli finance minister recently requested $1.2 billion for settlements and bypass roads, the letter reminded its readers that this purpose is clearly at odds with U.S. policy, which restricts U.S. foreign aid from being used in the occupied territories, and that availabillity of such funding leads to more land confiscation and displacement of more Palestinian people.
"We encourage Congress to seek answers as to how the $1.2 billion figure was set and to ask for verification of the need for this very large amount," wrote the church leaders. "The additional aid to Israel should not be provided if Israel does not carry out the withdrawals from the West Bank land as promised."
The letter encouraged continuing and additional aid to the Palestinian people for schools, water and sewer systems, and improvement of the legal system.
Finally, the church leaders reiterated their commitment to self-determination for the Palestinian people, including the probability of a Palestinian state, and to the principle of two peoples and three religions sharing the sacred city of Jerusalem.
While the letter from Churches for Middle East Peace called for Congress to be prudent and fair in its appropriations, another statement by religious leaders raises the question of whether a complete freeze of funding is in order. …