Expressing outrage at how some outside groups are distorting a recent action on the Middle East by the United Church of Christ General Synod, the Rev. John H. Thomas is calling on the Institute on Religion and Democracy and other groups to correct misleading statements about a proposal considered by the church's national gathering earlier this week.
The misleading statements, he said, have led some within and beyond the UCC to get the false impression that the General Synod has somehow changed its policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "This is not accurate," said Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president.
"Press releases from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, the Anti-Defamation League and others reveal an ignorance of General Synod parliamentary process as well as a distorted understanding the long history of engagement by our church related to the conflict in the Middle East," Thomas told United Church News. "General Synod policy related to Israel and Palestine remains today what it was before our Synod convened."
At its June 22-26 meeting in Hartford, Conn., the General Synod voted to "refer to the Executive Council for implementation" a resolution calling for "balanced study, commentary, and critique related to the conflict in the region."
The resolution further condemned "media programs, publications, advertising campaigns, textbooks and groups that perpetuate violence instead of promoting peace," and directed the Executive Council "to establish a Task Force to engage in ongoing and balanced study on the causes, history, and context of the conflict, including appropriate responses to the situation that may or may not lead to further support of economic leverage and removal of the security barrier."
The to-be-named Task Force is to report to the next General Synod in 2009.
"While the proponents of the resolution clearly believe that current UCC understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are too one-sided and need to be broadened," Thomas acknowledged, "the Executive Council, which made the recommendation to the plenary of the Synod, read the 'be it resolved' statements, which are the only binding parts of any Synod resolution, and deemed them to be consistent with existing General Synod policy."
According to General Synod Standing Rules, when a proposed resolution is judged to reaffirm existing policy, it is referred to an implementing body in the church rather than to a committee of the General Synod for debate, amendment, and recommendation to the plenary for action.
"That the Synod referred this resolution to the Executive Council for implementation underscores the fact that the Synod was not reconsidering or rejecting its current policy or the way in which that policy is implemented by agencies or officers of the church," Thomas said.
Thomas said UCC policy in the Middle East has been based on a set of principles that have been consistent over the period since the time of the 1967 war: support for two politically and economically viable states living side by side in peace and security with internationally recognized borders; condemnation of the use of violence whether by Palestinians or Israelis; access by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to their holy sites; and an arrangement whereby Jerusalem would be shared by both Israel and Palestine.
"These positions are informed by our long mission relationships with Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East, including Palestinian Christians," said the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries. "Just as we are in partnership relationship with Christians throughout the world, so are we in the birthplace of our faith, where the Christian community continues to offer a witness of hope and peace."
Thomas said that the proposed Task Force "will continue to use these basic principles as criteria for determining specific actions and initiatives in the future."
“I am disturbed that none of the authors of these press releases bothered to call our press office or any of our officers to ask for a statement or to seek understanding of our Synod process,” Thomas said. “Whether these stories merely reflect sloppy journalism or are ideologically driven misrepresentations, they do damage to the church and confuse our partners here and in the Middle East. While people of goodwill may disagree about the complex and deadly forces at work in the region, we should expect a shared commitment to journalistic integrity by all who care for peace with justice in the Middle East.”