Reeling from controversy over its decision to divest selectively from Israel, the Presbyterian Church (USA) fired two officials who helped organize a recent meeting with Hezbollah, a Lebanese militant organization branded by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization. The church also received a threatening letter last week promising arson attacks against its houses of worship.
No official explanation has been given for the November 11 dismissals of Kathy Lueckert, deputy executive associate director of the church’s mission program, and the Rev. Peter Sulyok, coordinator of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, who worked at the church’s headquarters in Louisville, Ky. According to one church official, the two employees had been warned by church leadership against meeting with representatives of Hezbollah.
But the 24-member Presbyterian delegation met in Lebanon with Sheikh Nabil Kaouk, Hezbollah’s commander in South Lebanon. During a joint televised press conference, the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Ronald Stone, a member of the delegation, thanked Hezbollah for its “good will” toward the American people and said, “As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”
The Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the Presbyterian Church’s top official, quickly distanced his organization from the comments made in Lebanon. He issued a second, more sharply worded statement saying that the visit was “misguided” and unauthorized, and that the comments were “reprehensible.”
The dismissals cap a turbulent period for the church, the ninth-largest Christian group in America with about 2.5 million full-time members, which started in July with the organization’s decision to begin a process of divesting from companies that aid Israel’s occupation of the territories. The decision has been condemned by Jewish organizations, and the church was criticized by some of its own members and by Jewish groups regarding the Hezbollah meeting.
This week, however, several major Jewish organizations rushed to the church’s defense after Presbyterian leaders revealed that they had received an anonymous letter threatening arson against their houses of worship. The handwritten letter, which was received last week and postmarked Queens, N.Y., declared that the attacks would be in retaliation for “your anti-Israel and anti-Jewish attitudes.” Jewish organizations repudiated the letter, which was adorned with a swastika. Some Jewish leaders also praised the dismissals.
“I’m heartened to see that the leadership took seriously members of a church team meeting with enemies of the United States and Israel,” said Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, interfaith affairs director of the Anti-Defamation League.
David Elcott, the U.S. director of the American Jewish Committee’s inter-religious department, said the issue was an internal matter, adding, “There is little indication that they are any more responsive to the issues we have brought up.”
— Eric Greenberg contributed to this report.