The General Churches in America and the Holy Land Conference opened its sessions on Tuesday, April 19, 2016 at the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta State under the title, “Devote Peace and Promote Resilience”.
The conference was attended by 22 heads of American churches, and six heads of Christian churches in the Holy Land. They are represented by Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem Theophilos III, Custodian of the Holy Land Father Ibrahim Faltas, Chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate Fr. George Ayoub, Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem Suhail Dawani, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land Munib Younan, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Holy Land, Rev. Mitri Raheb, director of Dar al- Kalima Model School, and Dr. Farzeen Aghakebian, member of the independent Commission for human rights in Palestine.
The conference discussed a number of issues that shed light on the suffering of the Palestinian people with regards to the Israeli occupation practices as well the embarrassment experienced by the Palestinians at roadblocks and denying them the right to get to holy places in order to obliterate Christian and Muslim holy sites. The conferees also reviewed maps that show the settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories which ignores all international conventions and treaties, and consequently drives the Palestinians to emigrate.
The two-day conference also dealt with other issues including the separation of Jerusalem from the rest of the cities and banning Palestinians from entering the city expect those who hold permits. The conferees also discussed failure to implement justice towards the Palestinian cause, and the need to resort to international organizations and to implement relevant resolutions so as to attain two-state solution and establish peace.
In an address Patriarch Twal said, “In light of the suffering experienced by the Palestinians, do not await the US government to find a solution; you should take the initiative and defend yourselves in the face of injustice.” He added, “Siding with the parties that seek to reach solutions to all the problems that breed violence, conflicts and wars–such as settlement building which gradually eliminates any chance for peace– is one of the challenges we are facing. So, the Church leaders must have the courage to defend justice and freedom for the benefit of Arabs and Jews alike.” The patriarch also drew attention that attaining this goal requires resorting to the approach that agrees with our Christian identity.
Among the other challenges facing the Church in the Holy Land is to persuade the faithful to stay in the country and to build their future in a land in which they feel marginalized and threatened. “This challenge requires us to work effectively and creatively to address employment, vocational training and housing issues.” He added, “The Church should be able to energize people and those of good will to work towards attaining educational, spiritual and socio-economic development for the public interest. We have all the ingredients to build a culture of peace and mutual respect, which in turn represents a guarantee for a better future for our children.”
In a region area where building walls separating is the dominant phenomenon, the Church strives to open its doors and the doors of its institutions to all people regardless of their religion, ethnicity or language. “Our Church must manipulate its ability to work with universal churches, humanitarian and religious institutions to provide greater solidarity and support in order to remove all the walls. Our institutions contribute to creating an environment that fosters the logic of meeting and dialogue so as to create a new mentality and a new generation of leaders.”
At the conclusion of the conference, the participants issued a peace statement that underscores the theological and ethical urgency for a just peace in the Holy Land.
The document, titled “Pursuing Peace and Strengthening Presence: The Atlanta Summit of Churches in the USA and the Holy Land,” affirmed that Christian churches have a responsibility to take an active role in bringing the chronic conflict to a just peace.
The peace statement calls for the end of continuing occupation of Palestinian lands beyond the 1967 borders. “We need to focus on bringing an end to the many elements of occupation including second class citizenship that is an affront to Christ’s message of love and inclusivity,” reads the document. “The continuing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands increasingly dims the hopes and realistic prospects for a two-state solution and is a major threat to peace.”
Following is the text of “The Atlanta Church Summit Document” issued at the end of the meeting:
1. We have come together in this unique first-time large scale Summit for Christian churches and Church-related organizations from the USA and the Holy Land following the example and teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ on peacemaking, the dignity owed to all created in God’s image and kindling the hope that someday there will be a just and lasting peace in the Holy Land.
2. The year 2017 will mark 50 years since the occupation of the West Bank including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. In the Bible, the 50th year is a year of jubilee when land is given back to its original owners, a year of freedom forgiveness and mercy.
3. Also significant is that we are meeting in Atlanta- the birthplace of Civil Rights Movement leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, whose prophetic ministry challenged officially sanctioned racial segregation in the US, while working towards greater justice and freedom for African Americans through nonviolence. We continue to be inspired by his dream in spite of all the challenges and adversities.
Our Purpose in Meeting
4. We have come together for two days of prayer and open dialogue in a spirit of theological and ethical urgency calling for a just peace, expressing our ecumenical unity to speed action towards the end of occupation, and to attain a lasting political solution in the Holy Land. We honor the land that witnessed to the life and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ affirming His call to justice, peacemaking and to the ministry of justice and reconciliation.
5. For decades the Holy Land, the land of redemption and universal reconciliation, has been a land of war, oppression, injustice and death. All the world’s Christians trace their faith’s roots to the Holy Land: it is the spiritual homeland for all Christians in the world. Therefore, Christians everywhere are called to prayer and action for healing in the Holy Land. They are called to act for justice and peace in the Holy Land. Peace with justice requires ending the long conflict, occupation, injustice and all acts of violence and terrorism and bringing back the land we call Holy to wholeness, peace, redemption and reconciliation for all of its inhabitants.
6. We affirm, therefore, that as Christian churches, we have a responsibility to take an active role in bringing this chronic conflict to a just peace. As Christians, we acknowledge the spiritual kinship we share with other children of Abraham, and the common imperative to love our neighbor and thus to respect other communities of faith.
7. We also acknowledge and affirm our obligation to continue the prophetic role of the Church, in speaking the truth in love and speaking truth to power. We are called to speak out again and again. We refuse to be silenced and we refuse to cease working for justice and peace.
Our Beliefs and Affirmations
8. We believe that working towards a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would not only serve the cause of peace and justice in the Holy Land but also promote peace in the Middle East region in general. A just peace would take away from those who take advantage by exploiting this conflict to serve their own motives, thereby compounding the perpetuation of injustices.
9. We affirm that the two-state solution, built on the basis of international resolutions, in which both Israelis and Palestinians can live in neighborly relations and at peace with each other, must be viable politically, geographically, economically and socially. As such, we believe that:
a- The continuing occupation of Palestinian lands beyond the 1967 borders and measures and laws that continue to constrain and control the Palestinian population and to abuse and violate basic human rights must end. These include: collective punishment, the restriction of free movement and economic and social development, and the constraints on the exercise of political rights. We need to focus on bringing an end to the many elements of occupation including second class citizenship that is an affront to Christ’s message of love and inclusivity.
b- The continuing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands increasingly dims the hopes and realistic prospects for a two-state solution and is a major threat to peace.
c- Jerusalem, sacred for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is viewed as a capital city for Palestine and Israel and an open, shared city with no walls where the rights of all are equal and respected. To this end freedom of worship for people of all three faiths must be protected and attacks such as so-called “price tag” incidents (retaliation graffiti) against churches and holy sites prevented.
d- Churches and church-related organizations need to work together proactively to protect the existing and future presence of Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. The current absence of a just political solution affects their presence and causes many of these Palestinian “living stones” (Luke 19:40) to seek dignified life in freedom outside the troubled Holy Land. A just and peaceful solution is imperative and will contribute to protecting the presence and active participation and involvement of the Palestinian “living stones” in the Holy Land and into a peaceful future.
10. We therefore call on both Palestinians and Israelis to do more to affirm the human dignity of the other, and urge their leaders to fulfill their responsibilities to do more to assure opportunity, security and peace for all the people of the Holy Land.
Issues Requiring Our Attention
11. The issues that merit special attention in which we can effectively promote peace with justice in the Holy Land, and to advance the two–state solution for Palestinians and Israelis and the three Abrahamic religions to live in peace include the following:
a- Develop a more effective advocacy in the USA.
b- Advocate and reach out to politicians and public figures and to a cross-section of the population.
c- Educate the members of our congregations on the necessity and merits of a peace process that would result in fulfilling the right of Palestinians to self-determination and to their own independent state as well as the rights of all people and nations in the region, including Israel, to live in security and peace.
d- Urge the US administration, Congress, politicians and public figures to adopt balanced and just positions that would pave the way for, and meaningfully accompany the necessary steps toward, a just and enduring solution of the conflict and a lasting peace.
e- Strengthen initiatives with various faith-based groups and communities in the United States that would inform and provide substantive input to the political process of making peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
f- Support initiatives to nurture deeper insight and understanding of existing and future opportunities for inter-religious collaboration, especially in providing humanitarian assistance to all people in need, including those in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, and all areas of the Holy Land.
g- Recognize, affirm and support the solidarity that is being demonstrated among some Christians, Jews, and Muslims–and some of the leaders of these communities in the Holy Land – especially in addressing humanitarian needs, fighting poverty, and fostering peace.
h- Find appropriate ways to exert economic leverage on commercial and governmental actors to end unfair and unjust practices and policies which violate international laws and conventions.
i- Propose steps that can be contemplated by the governing bodies of various churches in the USA on issues of peace building, and relations with churches and communities in Palestine and the Holy Land.
j- Designate a common day of prayer and reflections across the churches in the USA and the Holy Land to focus all of our prayers on a just and comprehensive peace in Palestine, Israel and the Middle East.
k- Exercise our obligation to educate our constituencies regarding the damaging consequences of certain versions of dispensationalism theology and fundamentalist Christian teachings that create obstacles to peace, the two-state solution and peaceful coexistence in present-day Palestine and Israel.
In Strengthening the Christian Presence in the Holy Land:
a- Engage in mutual visits and exchanges with the Churches and their leaders, to strengthen the resolve for ongoing commitment and hard work for peace and justice in the Holy Land.
b- Increase community-based pilgrimages and authentic tourism to the Holy Land with the intent to stay in Palestinian towns and villages in order to engage with indigenous communities, to experience first-hand their hopes and fears and to contribute to their community and economic development.
c- Work with denominational, ecumenical, and interfaith partners to strengthen relationships and efforts towards a common witness for peace in Palestine and Israel.
d- Support development in Palestine through creative social and economic investment, thus witnessing to our commitment to operate at the intersection of faith and finance.
e-Strengthen existing efforts and identify new models of church solidarity in action.
f- Support local churches and Church related organizations not only to survive, but also to thrive and continue their ministries through educational, health, cultural and social services.
g- Encourage reference to the Kairos Palestine message as an established initiative
We remain committed to work on these issues and to follow up on this Summit and
on the issues presented above including a possible conference in the Holy Land.
The Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia
April 20, 2016.