NEW YORK (Jan. 4)
Christian, Moslem and Jewish religious leaders returned recently from a first-ever joint trip to the Middle East confident that they gained a newly nuanced understanding of complexities involved in the peace process.
According to Al Vorspan, the recently retired senior vice president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, “We knew each other before from public stereo-types and now we know each other personally. Before this trip I would not have made the distinctions I make now,” he said.
The trip to the Middle East, which took place Nov. 29 through Dec. 11, was organized by the U.S. Interreligious Committee for Peace in the Middle East, a Philadelphia-based group.
The 24 participants visited Israel, the West Bank, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, meeting with government officials at each stop. Their reactions to Israel’s recent expulsion of 415 Moslem fundamentalists reflected their new-found insight into the complexities of the Middle East.
The National Council of Churches’ General Secretary Rev. Joan Brown Campbell and its Middle East director, Dale Bishop, both participated in the 24-member delegation.
The NCC is an umbrella group representing 32 Protestant and Orthodox church denominations.
NCC LETTER REFLECTS NEW BALANCE
In a letter to negotiators in the peace talks and to President-elect Bill Clinton shortly after returning, the NCC called on the Palestine Liberation Organization to “unambiguously condemn violent acts by extremists,” and on Israel to “revoke its expulsion of Palestinians.”
The NCC letter also urged direct talks between Israel and the PLO, “thus stripping away the facade of non-recognition.”
The letter contained understanding of the Israeli desire for official Palestinian condemnation of the violence, reflecting a balance that had not generally found its way into NCC statements about Arab-Israeli problems in the past.
“The trip made a big difference in how we’ll approach” a statement about the deportations, said Campbell several days before issuing the letter. She pledged that it would not be “a kneejerk reaction to headlines.”
“NCC’s was a very balanced announcement,” said Avi Granot, the Israeli Embassy’s counselor for church affairs.
He met with representatives of several church groups before they issued statements.
“We appreciate that they are committed and concerned about the peace process. It is not the criticism we are concerned with, but it is when the criticism is off-balance that we start to worry about it,” said Granot.
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, also applauded the fairness of the NCC letter.
“There is some clear attempt at balance,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see this, despite the sharp attacks against Israel.”
This country’s 57 million Catholics were represented on the trip by Rev. Raymond Helmick, who was sent by the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace.
On his return, Helmick said that “Hamas and rejectionist factions are interested in preventing settlement.
“We need to develop a process in which the parties can express their common, practical opposition to the violence. It’s in the interests of the U.S. to promote that.”
The U.S. Catholic Conference opted not to issue an official statement about the expulsions, but referred to the issue in a general fashion in the Christmas statement of Archbishop John Roach, chair of the Catholic Conference’s Committee on International Policy.
“We earnestly pray for a speedy and just conclusion to the Arab-Israeli peace talks,” said his statement. “With close ties to the Jewish community and with our Arab Christian brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, we are eager for the day” when Arabs and Israelis “alike will be able to celebrate without fear.”
The statements from these groups stood in marked contrast to those issued by other Christian groups that did not participate in the trip to the Middle East.
The Geneva-based World Council of Churches was sharply critical of the Israeli action and did not mention the Hamas terrorism that prompted the Israeli move.
Todor Sabev, the WCC’s acting general-secretary, said in a cable sent to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin that “collective punishment is gravely detrimental to the pursuit of peace and severely compromises the continuation of the peace negotiations.”
Perhaps the sharpest criticism of Israel came from Rev. Mark Brown of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which claims more than 5 million members.
Brown, who is also a spokesman for Churches for Middle East Peace, termed the deportations “one of the most inhumane forms of punishment” and “a violation of international law,” citing both the Geneva Convention and the Charter of the Nuremberg Military Tribunal.