The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) sponsored a consultation in September on the current situation in Israel and Palestine, gathering United States church leaders, church representatives to ecumenical bodies, ecumenical and church staff representing offices engaged in Middle East issues, representatives of the Palestinian Christian community, the South African Council of Churches, and from the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem (the “WCC/NCC Consultation” or the “consultation”). The consultation followed a summit held at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia this April attended by Christian leaders from the United States and from the Holy Land. Both the April summit and the September consultation were designed to gather together global, regional and US religious leaders, grassroots activists, and civil society actors to enhance the churches’ knowledge of the current situation in Israel and Palestine, and likewise to enhance ecumenical relationships that will lead to more effective US advocacy for justice there, recognizing the strategic importance of the United States in resolving the impasse, and recognizing that next year—2017—will mark fifty years of the illegal occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories following the 1967 war, and almost seventy years since the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands Palestinians that accompanied the founding of the State of Israel.
The consultation, led by the WCC General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse-Tveit, and the NCC President and General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Jim Winkler, presumed deep knowledge of the situation in Israel and Palestine and was resourced by panels of experts from the region and here in the US. Members of the consultation met with representatives of the US State Department at the Department of State. A statement by the two leaders from the WCC and the NCC was released during a press conference at the conclusion of the consultation.
Several coincidences of timing are notable: (1) during the consultation international press announced the agreement between the United States and Israel for $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next ten years; (2) US state and national legislation has been proposed and, in many cases, approved, that would render illegal peaceful exercising of the right of free speech by individuals, corporations and institutions that engage in boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) activities against companies that benefit from the illegal occupation of Palestinian Territories; (3) the consultation followed a meeting of the Central Committee of the WCC this summer in Trondheim, Norway during which an inter-religious panel discussion intended to provide self-reflective accounts of religious violence instead was used by the Jewish representative, and American member of the ADL, to vilify the WCC’s history of steadfast support of Palestinian Christians and its work to promote inter-religious understanding, peace and reconciliation in Israel and Palestine; and (4) the US non-governmental organization Churches for Middle East Peace has engaged a new executive director who has lived in Palestine and understands well the need to project the voices of Palestinian Christians into the US context, and who recognizes the need to revitalize the advocacy of CMEP in speaking truth to power. The tension between hope and hopelessness that could be evoked by the juxtaposition of these various developments characterized the consultation, joined to one more: the possibility that the outgoing US president might use the interim between the November election and his last day in office to change the status quo.
The consultation opened with a reflection on the Beatitudes. The call to be peacemakers undergirds all of this work on Israel and Palestine over many decades; the willingness to be reviled and persecuted while engaged in work to bring an end to the occupation marked the departure from safe formulas in the statement issued at the end. Over and again, speakers returned to the importance of the work of the churches in overcoming the apartheid system in South Africa, and the international solidarity among church and secular activism that was required then. Parallels between the circumstances then in South Africa and now in the Holy Land are striking. These include colonial investment in the government, institutional support for the status quo, criminalization of opposition, racist vilification of the victims, and the temptation of hopelessness. Differences between the two situations include the implications of the Holocaust and the risks and accusations of anti-Semitism.
Over the decades, there have been many consultations on the Holy Land, the need for peace, security for all parties and justice. This consultation was marked by a realization that the predictable cycle of statements/condemnation of statements, actions (like expansion of illegal settlements)/condemnation of actions, violence/reciprocal violence/condemnation of violence/rebuilding, have reached a predictable equilibrium against which no condemnation by governments or efforts by activists are able to have any real effect to end the inexorable de-legitimization of the Palestinian people and appropriation of Palestinian land: the cycles simply repeat with impunity on the part of the Israeli government. US military aid increases under each successive US administration and every piece of US legislation that supports Israeli interests receives almost 100% support from the US Congress (and now, at the state level). Every effort to bring attention to the egregious human rights violations against Palestinians—Christian and Muslim alike—are branded anti-Semitic, including those that recognize the legitimate security concerns of Israelis and Palestinians.
Some at the consultation observed parallels between the history of the Native Americans and the history of Palestinians, as well as the potential synergies between current movements for justice underway by Palestinians, by Native Americans, as well as by the African American community and the Black Lives Matter movement. That there is a real threat to the Israeli status quo in that potential, that cooperation among these movements might amplify legitimate claims for human rights and justice and reach a tipping point, toppling global tolerance for the intractable positions of Israel, is demonstrated by the well-funded campaign to delegitimize BLM and its solidarity with Palestinians. History demonstrates that voices suppressed today will not be silenced forever.
Whatever is the tipping point that can shift the equilibrium towards real peace and justice, the consultation and joint statement demonstrated that another tipping point had been reached: no longer would the NCC or the WCC cave to pressure from its Jewish partners in inter-religious dialogue to dial back justifiable criticism of Israeli policies that dehumanize Palestinians and block the end to the occupation. Guarding against ubiquitous—and foundationless—accusations of anti-Semitism and acquiescing to calls for “balance” in a situation suffering from such egregious imbalance perpetuates the generations-long illegal occupation and has served the Israeli project. Rather, as called for by the Christians of the Holy Land in the Kairos Palestine document, the NCC and the WCC will continue and intensify their costly solidarity, speaking in the halls of power the truth as has been seen and heard and experienced by countless visitors, pilgrims, and Palestinian residents, refugees, exiles and émigrés, and redouble their efforts for peace. An important letter related to BDS dated August 22, 2016 “Employing Economic Measures as Nonviolent Tools for Justice in the Israeli-Palestinian Context,” signed by many church leaders has been circulating, and still is gathering additional signatories.
Both the Atlanta Summit and the WCC/NCC Consultation demonstrated and recognized the importance of engaging faith communities in this work and encouraging the involvement of church leaders in the United States. The Antiochian Archdiocese, with so many priests and parishioners of Palestinian backgrounds, has a unique perspective and critical part in this effort. The historic role of Antioch as bridge-builder in the region, as witness to the vocation of Christians in a multi-cultural, multi-religious, richly diverse and historically complicated milieu, translates directly to the US context where Antioch could lead the way in witnessing to and affirming the fundamental values of human dignity of all human beings, and the importance of tolerance and respect. Such leadership would witness to the legacy of a Church that shares fully in the suffering of its own people, in patience, but also in courage as a Church and that is not a self-contained community “but is dispersed like salt, seeking its identity in its vocation”. As His Beatitude Patriarch John X has said over and again, “Protection of Christians in the Middle East means peace for all people in the region.”
The Antiochian Archdiocese has been missing from the ecumenical network in the United States since the NCC took its stand against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. (History has proven that to have been a prescient and principled, if then unpopular, stand.) This recent consultation (and the frequent and relevant interventions of Father Joseph Rahal during the consultation and during the meeting at the State Department), demonstrates the importance of insuring the presence of knowledgeable representatives of the Antiochian Archdiocese at these important tables, both to communicate the Antiochian perspective, and also to understand and influence actions that are being considered, serving as a liaison to North American archdiocesan leadership. The NCC is not a place for resolving doctrinal differences, but rather is a place of opportunity for the Christian churches to gather, to know one another, for each to witness to their particular context, and to speak together when possible.
Following this consultation, the Antiochian Archdiocese might consider a range of actions:
- Arrange a meeting among the NCC President and General Secretary Jim Winkler, senior Orthodox NCC staff member Dr. Antonius Kireopoulos, and His Eminence to explore Antiochian participation and leadership in further efforts for peace in Israel and Palestine, as well as the possibility of rejoining the NCC;
- Arrange a meeting between His Eminence and the new executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, the Rev. Mae Cannon, to explore the new direction of CMEP and opportunities for the Antiochian Archdiocese to participate in and influence the CMEP agenda;
- Form a working group of Antiochian priests and lay advocates working for peace in Israel and Palestine to help resource the Antiochian Archdiocese on the many initiatives underway and in order to form understanding and a vision for effective leadership and common efforts;
- Resource parishes and educate members of Antiochian congregations on the necessity and merits of a peace process that recognizes the human dignity of the Palestinian people and the human dignity and human rights of all people, and nations in the region to live in security and peace;
- Support and encourage local parish participation in the World Week for Peace in Palestine and Israel;
- Encourage the dissemination and study of the Kairos Palestine document;
- Encourage Antiochian Orthodox Christians to enroll as ecumenical accompaniers in Palestine in the Ecumenical Accompaniement Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) and encourage parishes to invite as speakers returned EAPPI accompaniers;
- Encourage all Antiochian Orthodox who plan to visit the Holy Land to follow the Code of Conduct for Tourism in the Holy Land endorsed by Palestinians;
- At the archdiocesan level, divest from investments in companies that profit from the illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, boycott products manufactured by companies that profit from the illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories, and encourage parishes and parishioners to do so;
- Encourage the Assembly of Bishops to support the Kairos Palestine document and to use its influence to help shift the status quo in the Holy Land towards peace;
- Use its standing as the representative of Arabic speaking Christians from the Middle East to influence the United States government to help end the illegal occupation and bring peace to the region.
V. Rev. Joseph Rahal
Anne Glynn Mackoul