The holiest week of the year for Christians may this year become the setting for a unique offensive in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Middle East Council of Churches, a consortium of 24 Middle Eastern churches, has launched a “prayer offensive” on behalf of the Palestinian people, to take place from Palm Sunday, April 8, to the Feast of Pentecost on June 3.
To be distributed to churches throughout the world, and in America by the National Council of Churches, the “Prayer from Jerusalem” seeks to “strengthen those who thirst for mercy and justice, but have been deprived of the right to live in dignity.”
“We come to Jerusalem with you,” the prayer reads, “and we see that there are those who live in fear. Grant them inner peace. Free them from the illusion that depriving others of their rights, or even eliminating them, will provide security or reaffirm self-identity.”
Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, as well as the National Council of Christians and Jews, have reacted to the prayer with alarm.
“We believe this prayer transmits a strong anti-Israel bias,” said Rabbi A. James Rudin, AJCommittee’s interreligious affairs director. It makes the “reckless and unjustified claim that Palestinian Arabs are being deprived of their ‘very right to life’ by Israel.
“Such language implies that the physical destruction of the Palestinian community is the goal and policy of Israel. This is malicious slander,” he said in a statement.
FULL OF ‘MISCHIEVOUS INNUENDOES’
Rudin asserted that the prayer is a thinly veiled attack on the State of Israel in liturgical form. Its use during the Christian holy week would inject a divisive and polarizing element into such services, he said.
The National Conference of Christians and Jews fears that the prayer will sour Christian-Jewish relations. “I urge you to be alert in a proactive manner to tensions that may arise in your region over the ‘Prayer from Jerusalem,’ ” Elliot Wright, NCCJ senior vice president of program development, said in a memorandum to NCCJ regional directors.
Arden Shenker, chairman of NJCRAC, went as far as to call the prayer a “theological screen for political extremism and distortion,” filled with “mischievous innuendoes, sly insinuations and gross inaccuracies.”
The prayer seeks to “divide, polarize and to inflame,” he said.
But the National Council of Churches does not see what all the fuss is about.
“I think they’ve read a lot more into the prayer than is there,” said Charles Kimbell, the council’s Middle East director. “To call it anti-Israel is to read it with prejudice. I think there are many positive points in the prayer that are being overlooked.”
The council, which serves as an umbrella organization for 32 church denominations and approximately 45 million constituents, insists that the prayer is not unfair or inappropriate.
“It’s no great surprise that there are serious issues of lack of full rights on the part of the Palestinians,” said Kimbell. “What you’re hearing is the words of Palestinian Christians who are praying. This is the concern that they themselves have voiced.
“We are merely responding to their request that it be distributed,” he said. “Churches can use it or not use it as they see fit.”
SOME CHURCHES AVOIDING PRAYER
Some churches, in fact, have decided not to adopt the prayer. The Dutch Council of Churches and individual Protestant churches in West Germany have refused to use the prayer, calling it “one-sided.”
The Middle East Council effort, which goes under the name Christians for Peace in the Holy Land, was initiated at an international meeting in Geneva in November 1989, but its origins date back at least two years.
In January 1988, the heads of Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican churches in Jerusalem issued a joint statement calling upon churches throughout the world to join them in a search for a “real peace based on justice” for all the people of the region.
In April 1989, they reiterated their appeal, adding a request to the United Nations “to give urgent attention to the plight of the Palestinian people.”
The Palm Sunday prayer is meant to initiate “a period of action and reflection,” according to Gabriel Habib, the Middle East Council’s general secretary. Activities will include prayers and fasting, public events, representations to governments and various events in Jerusalem.
“This is nothing new,” said Rudin. “Over the last 15 years, the Middle East Council has shown a consistent anti-Israel bias. This year it’s responding to the intifada. If it wasn’t the intifada, it would be something else.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.