Church Leaders Discuss Middle East Peace with Secretary of State Colin Powell
Strickert, Fred, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs
Church Leaders Discuss Middle East Peace With Secretary of State Colin Powell
Dr. Fred Strickert is professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
"Shout out from the tops of church steeples your concern for Middle East peace."
With these words Secretary of State Colin Powell offered a delegation of church leaders encouragement and hope. The delegation of 10 church leaders met with Powell on June 7 to present a formal letter and to discuss the churches' concern for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
THE BISHOPS' LETTER
"There is no higher priority for peacemaking in the world today than between Israel and the Palestinians," said the 16 bishops and representatives of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches whose names were affixed to the letter. They referred to the conflict as "a cancer that threatens the health of the whole region, U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim countries, and interfaith relations worldwide."
The letter was an outgrowth of the delegation of church leaders which visited the Middle East last December. It described how that earlier delegation "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.
"We have heard from our Palestinian Christian partners, and seen for ourselves," they said, the destructive impact of Israel's settlement policy separating village from village, confiscating more and more Palestinian land, creating friction with its military checkpoints."
In their letter, the church leaders reminded Secretary Powell that the churches have appealed to the U.S. government for over 20 years regarding the issue of settlements. While successive administrations have also spoken out, the Israeli government has ignored U.S. advice and continued expansion of Jewish-only settlements.
The leaders noted with dismay "Israel's practice of assassination and economic strangulation of the fledgling Palestinian state as counterproductive to either security or peace," and called upon Israel "to abandon military force and return to negotiations as the path to security."
Methodist Bishop William Oden emphasized that the letter was not one-sided. "I don't believe the letter was tilted toward the Palestinians and was not even-handed," he was quoted in a religious news service story. "The security of Israel is important to the United States, as is the independence of Palestine."
In addition to its criticism of Israeli policy, the leaders appealed to the Palestinians "to abandon violence as a means to end the occupation." Nevertheless, unlike many media reports and unlike administration statements, the church leaders did not see "the Palestinian uprising" as the root of the problem. "We understand the rage that comes from decades of occupation, dislocation and the feeling of having been betrayed by the peace process," the leaders noted. The problem, they said, is the escalating cycle of violence: "Breaking the cycle of violence is fundamental to restarting the peace process and rebuilding the hope and will for peace."
Finally, the bishops offered criticism of the U.S. role as weapons supplier for Israel in this conflict: "The use of F-16 fighter jets against civilian populations is unacceptable and must be challenged by the U.S. government."
Likewise they questioned the use of attack helicopters as being in violation of U.S. law covering "end-use" in weapons sales, calling for a suspension of further sales and a reconsideration of Clinton administration promises to increase military aid to Israel over the next eight years.
In order to bring a halt to inappropriate weapons use and to stop settlement activity, it was suggested that the Bush administration apply "considerable diplomatic pressure and possibly economic pressure."
The letter concluded by expressing a concern which "extends to each person suffering from this conflict. …