Israel is targeting the small Palestinian Christian community here, threatening a key connection to the West and worrying Christian leaders, said Dr. Rafiq Husseini, chief of staff to the president, Palestinian National Authority (PNA).
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He made the comment Jan. 13 in a meeting here with seven North American Lutheran bishops.
The bishops were part of a group of 44 bishops representing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), who visited the West Bank and Israel Jan. 6-13. The bishops met with religious, political and community leaders, and visited sacred sites. Their visit focused on support and encouragement for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL).
More than 1,000 Palestinians have died and nearly 5,000 have been injured in the war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. Many of the dead and injured are women, children and elderly people.
"Civilians are paying the price," Husseini said. Thirteen Israelis have died.
"We can't talk peace with Israel right now," he said. Husseini said he believes Israel intends to sever all relations between people in Gaza and the West Bank, expand settlements and take up to 20 percent of the Palestinian land, because of the separation barrier. Israel does not intend for there to be separate states for Israelis and Palestinians, Husseini said.
About 1.5 percent of the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank are Christians. Many are suffering under the Israeli occupation, the bishops were told. "A good message from your side is to push to end the occupation," said a member of the Palestinian President's Committee for Christian Affairs.
The Rev. Mark S. Hanson, ELCA presiding bishop and president of the Lutheran World Federation, said the committee's comments were disturbing and showed regression for Christians here. He said the war in Gaza fails to meet the test of Christian "just war" principles and the Israeli response to Hamas is
"As leaders we are called to obstruct injustices and (to) open doors," he said. Hanson pledged that Lutherans in the United States will engage the Obama administration, which he hopes will exercise power in ways different than the Bush administration has.
"The war in Gaza has made it difficult for us as moderates. Extremists are winning the day," Hanson said. He pledged to use his influence to help U.S. religious leaders speak with one voice on the Middle East.
The Rev. Munib A. Younan, ELCJHL bishop, proposed that the Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land meet with the committee to develop a strategy that addresses concerns and provides hope to Palestinian Christians.
The bishops met with PNA Prime Minister Salam Fayaad. He told them Palestinians are positive people, but decades of Israeli occupation have hurt. Palestinians need spirit, Fayaad said. "That is not going to happen unless we can defeat defeatism."
Fayaad told the Lutherans that a Christian presence in the Middle East "is highly important to us. It's who we are," he said. There is richness in diversity, Fayaad said.
The bishops visited the Russian Orthodox Patriachate in Jerusalem to sign a book of condolences in memory of world Patriarch Alexei II, who died last month.
The bishops placed a wreath at the grave site of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who was assassinated in 1995. The previous day the bishops placed a wreath at the grave site of Yasser Arafat, the PNA president who died in 2004. The two men signed a Declaration of Principles for peace between Arabs and
Israelis, commonly known as "The Oslo Accords," in 1993 at the White House.