US Churches Call For Economic Pressure On Israel

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Above Photo: A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons

The heads of Palestine’s major Christian traditions recently met with leaders from 24 church denominations for a two-day summit in Atlanta featuring an address by former president Jimmy Carter.

Leaders of Palestine’s Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Armenian and Lutheran churches participated.

The historic gathering, hosted by The Carter Center, culminated in a statement committing those assembled “to act for justice and peace in the Holy Land.”

“We need to focus on bringing an end to the many elements of occupation including second class citizenship that is affront to Christ’s message of love and inclusivity,” declares the statement, which was endorsed by representatives from Palestinian and US church-related and civil society groups in attendance.

Noting that next year marks five decades since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the statement asserts that “In the Bible, the 50th year is a year of jubilee when land is given back to its original owners.”

According to Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran priest from the West Bank city of Bethlehem who helped organize the event, the summit was “unprecedented” and encouraged church leaders to foster stronger relationships between US and Palestinian communities.

Commitment

While the summit statement stops short of explicitly endorsing boycott, divestment and sanctions measures to hold Israel accountable, it does call for exerting “economic leverage” on businesses or governments that “violate international laws and conventions.”

“This is a major step for some churches,” Raheb told The Electronic Intifada. “It is enough? No. But things are moving.”

Raheb is one of the key authors of the 2009 Kairos Palestine document, a declaration by Palestinian Christian leaders that condemns the Israeli occupation and calls for “boycott and disinvestment as tools of nonviolence for justice, peace and security for all.”

G.J. Tarazi, representing the Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace, described the summit as an “entry point.”

“The heads of churches and supporting groups did not all speak the same language about the military occupation and how to respond to the injustices,” Tarazi told The Electronic Intifada.

“Even though I wanted and expected more, I came away challenged and optimistic,” he added.

His church, the Alliance of Baptists, recently endorsed boycott, divestment and sanctions and has begun the process of divesting from companies linked to Israel’s occupation.

Authentic pilgrimage

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, head of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said in a press release, “Our people in America do not know the situation on the ground.”

Holy Land tours popular with Christian pilgrims typically focus on sacred sites and ignore what Palestinian churches often refer to as “the living stones” – the people who still live in the land and face the daily realities of occupation.

The summit statement calls for pilgrimages that include stays in “Palestinian towns and villages in order to engage with indigenous communities, to experience firsthand their hopes and fears.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, who became the center of controversy with his 2006 book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, made the concluding address at the summit.

Carter told summit participants that their goals would “not have any effect unless the churches and members here work on them jointly, enthusiastically and aggressively.”

Raheb said that “the success of the summit depends on the follow-up that should come. I think that we were able to push the envelope.”

Several religious groups in the US are set to debate divestment initiatives at their respective upcoming nationwide gatherings – including the Methodists, Presbyterians and Unitarian Universalists.