From Dec. 7-12 a high-level ecumenical delegation of American church leaders traveled to the Middle East to express solidarity with Christian churches there and to lend their voices to a growing chorus calling for renewed efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis in the area.
Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, represents a delegation of U.S. church leaders during a candlelight vigil (right) on Manger Square Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The delegation visited the Middle East Dec. 7-12 to express its solidarity with churches there. Mike Dubose, United Methodist News Service photo.
The UCC's Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries in the UCC's national setting, was part of the delegation.
James Solheim, Director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and Information, served as press officer for the peace delegation. The following items are taken from his daily reports.
Day 1: Dec. 8, 2000
Our ecumenical delegation of church leaders waded into the thicket of Middle East issues in the midst of the increasing violence that has plagued the area for the last two months. As the bus moved out of the gates of Notre Dame Center across the road from the Old City of Jerusalem, Bishop Herbert Chilstrom of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America prayed for the safety of the people, especially the children.
Entering Bethlehem, now a closed military area, the streets were strangely quiet and empty, highly unusual in the Christian season of Advent. The closed shops and hotels cast a noticeable pall over the city when it should be entering its most celebratory time.
On the way to visit some of the Christian homes in Beit Jala that recently have been bombed, we were greeted by a sign that said, "Merry Xmas, America. Thank you for your Xmas gifts." The sign showed helicopters and bombs with Israeli and American flags. One family's home and business had been reduced to a pile of rubble by Israeli rockets and shells. "You have to be our voice; we need you," said Vera Baboun in welcoming us. Shell fragments were clearly identified as being made in the USA.
In a thorough and sobering presentation, Dr. Jad Isaac used a series of overhead projections to illustrate how Israel was systematically creating densely populated "cages" for the Palestinian population, surrounded by Israeli settlements. Not one settlement has a waste treatment facility so they usually use Palestinian land as dump sites. He drew direct parallels between environmental issues and political issues.
Day 2: Dec. 9, 2000
(Jerusalem) "The number of Christians in Palestine is dwindling so much that the situation is becoming dangerous," Armenian Patriarch Torkom II told us. "But we are here, and we will be here in the future because the holy places are not museums." Christians are determined to "make our presence strong—and to make it heard and seen." The Armenian Patriarch and other church leaders said that the churches are living in difficult times. "Stopping the violence is not a local concern but one for the whole world," he said.
"Palestinians and Israelis must live together, whether we want it or not," the patriarch told us. The goal is for both peoples to live on their own lands in peace and brotherhood, he said. "We want no one to suffer...We have to learn, if we don't know already, how to live with each other and pray together."
"What we need is not people who take sides but those who can see both sides—and will help seek and work for justice," Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah told us.
"We Muslims and Christians live in this town as family, with the same pains and the same hopes," said Sheikh Muhammed Hussein, as we crammed into his offices near the Dome of the Rock. He echoed comments expressed by other Christian leaders about difficulties of expressing religion in a climate of freedom. "Our people will live side by side with the Israelis—but only with dignity," he said. He asked for help in pressuring the U.S. government "to allow us to live with dignity as Palestinians."
Day 3: Dec. 10, 2000
Like many church leaders who met with our delegation, Father Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Delegate for the Vatican in the Holy Land, worries about the future of the Christian presence in and around Jerusalem. "We are here to keep alive the faith," he said.
While Muslims in the Middle East have the support of Muslims all over the world, that is not really true of Christians in the Holy Land, he contended. Christians need "the support of disciples of Jesus around the world for survival." He and others stressed how important visitors are for the churches and encouraged us to tell others not to cancel trips to the Middle East.
Addressing the allegation that the Palestinians are using their children to fuel the violence, Sambi said, "There is no place for children other than the streets." And they often use their older brothers as models. "This is a war of children and boys and it doesn't stop," he said. "It will be a war of and for the future."
Members of our delegation traveled to Bethlehem Sunday night to join hundreds of people on a candlelight march to Manger Square. The UCC's Bernice Powell Jackson was one who addressed the marchers.
"My message to the people of Bethlehem was that we were celebrating Human Rights Day there with them," she says. "I recalled the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice. I added that just as the moral arc of the universe had bent toward Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, so, too, it is bending now."
Day 4: Dec. 11, 2000
(Gaza City) "We are facing a disaster," a grim-faced President Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Authority told us during a morning conversation. "In spite of that, we are doing our best to return to the peace process." He indicated that a non-military solution must be found. Arafat thanked us for our visit in spite of the difficult situation and encouraged our delegation to make a strong push to save the peace process.
The collapse of the peace process and the renewed intifada (Arabic for shaking off) is creating a social and economic suffocation in the occupied Palestinian territories, argued Raji Sourani, director of the Palestine Center for Human Rights in Gaza City. He called the political rhetoric used by the Israelis "very scary." "Fair-minded Jews realize that what is happening is de facto apartheid," he said. "Palestinians are not ready to be ‘good victims.'"
In a brief stop for prayers at the chapel at Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, we saw fragments of an American-made missile that had killed one of the hospital's ambulance drivers.
At the end of a long and sobering day, we met with four Israeli religious peace activists. They were very open about their hopes for continued dialogue with their Palestinian counterparts. At the same time their fear for their personal safety has been heightened since the outbreak of the second intifada. "Our hearts are breaking every day," said Rabbi Yehezkel Landau. "How do we get people to hear the fear?"
Day 5: Dec. 12, 2000
(Jerusalem) On our last day we met with the mayor of Jerusalem, officials at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the top Palestinian leader in Jerusalem and issued a final statement at a press conference. (We also were supposed to meet with Israel's President Moshe Katsav, but he cancelled when domestic politics were confused by Prime Minister Ehud Barak's resignation.)
The statement said, "We believe that our faith calls us to tell the truth of what we have seen, and that, unless we share with the world what we have seen, the stones will cry out. We are persuaded that the peace which must come for all, Israeli and Palestinian alike, can only be achieved on a firm foundation of justice."
The test of the full press conference statement is on the Internet at www.loga.org/delegationFINAL.htm.
Participants in the delegation included
Bishop Viken Aykazian, Armenian Apostolic Church
The Very Rev. Brother Stephen Glodek, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes
The Rev. John McCullough,Church World Service and Witness, National Council of Churches
Bishop Vincent Warner, Episcopal Church's Diocese of Olympia, and Mrs. Janice Warner
Bishop Edmond Browning, former presiding bishop, The Episcopal Church, and Mrs. Patti Browning
Bishop Dimitrios, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Former Presiding Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Bishop Margaret Payne, Bishop, ELCA's New England Synod
Bishop Theodore Schneider, Bishop, ELCA's Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod
Donella Clemens, Mennonite Central Committee
Inez Allan, Presbyterian Church USA
Mary Ellen McNish, American Friends Service Committee
Bernice Powell Jackson, United Church of Christ
Bishop William Oden, United Methodist Church, and Mrs. Marilyn Oden