As Israel presses for more time to pursue its military campaigns against Hezbollah and Hamas, liberal American churches are pushing hard for a cease-fire and are criticizing Israeli actions in Lebanon and in Gaza.
Late last week, officials representing some dozen mainline Protestant and other, mostly liberal denominations sent a pair of letters to President Bush, calling for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Lebanon and suggesting that Israel’s actions in Gaza lack “proportion.” Individual denominations and Christian groups also have issued their own statements in response to the current crisis, many criticizing Israeli actions as excessive or disproportionate - sometimes using very strong language.
“Pretty uniformly the churches in this country have been calling for an immediate end to the violence and a cease-fire, and many of the Jewish groups are willing to let the hostilities continue to root out Hezbollah,” said Antonios Kireopoulos, associate general secretary of international affairs and peace at the National Council of Churches USA, an umbrella group that includes the mainline denominations. “We see the harm that’s coming to the Lebanese community in general. While we certainly are against terrorism, and certainly condemn the attacks of Hezbollah into Israel, we see that the response of Israel is so damaging to the people and to the infrastructure in Lebanon that we see it as more destabilizing.”
The so-called mainline Protestant churches - liberal and centrist Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Baptists and others - have long been critical of Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians as well as of American foreign policy in the Middle East. These denominations often have strong ties to Palestinian and Lebanese Christians through their missionary work and through sister churches in the region. The latest hostilities in Lebanon and Gaza came just as Jewish groups had been breathing sighs of relief, as they appeared to have blunted campaigns within the mainline churches to divest from Israel.
Mark Pelavin, director of Reform Judaism’s Commission on Interreligious Affairs, said that the mainline churches “at some level don’t get terrorism, don’t understand the impact that terrorism has on Israeli life.”
He faulted the churches’ recent statements for being insufficiently sympathetic to Israel’s predicament. “I’d like them to recognize Hezbollah for what it is, which is a terrorist organization - something that does in fact need to be dismantled, disarmed, defanged, made something that is not a threat,” said Pelavin, who has been heavily involved in dialogue with mainline Protestants.
The National Council of Churches and the allied Church World Service issued a July 14 statement that said: “Any hope for peace, itself a miracle in the midst of occupation, was stifled with Israel’s missile strike on Gaza and the death of innocent Palestinians. Any chance of reconciliation was hindered by the retributive attacks and kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas. Any call for restraint was ignored with disproportionate retaliations by Israel. Any plea for reason was cast aside with the capture of two more Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah. Any prayer for an end to this escalation of hostilities was silenced with the Israeli incursions into Lebanon, the subsequent shelling of Haifa and Beirut, and the death of more and more civilians.”
Some of the harshest criticism of Israel has come from the 1.3-million-member United Church of Christ. In a “Pastoral Letter to Palestinian Friends and Partners,” the denomination’s president, the Rev. John Thomas, denounced the “massive destruction” of Palestinian infrastructure, decried Israel’s separation barrier and condemned the “complicity” of the American government in the sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, which “have caused a financial strangulation of vital political, educational and humanitarian institutions.”
In his letter to the Palestinians - which drew an angry response from the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center - Thomas also criticized “many Christians” in the United States “who see only Israel’s need for security, who focus only on a few terrorist acts which you yourselves condemn,” and he complained, “Many in our own churches are subject to intense lobbying by Jewish groups demonizing the Palestinian community.” He proclaimed the UCC’s “readiness to use our church’s economic resources, including the possibility of divestment, to press for an end to the occupation and to support peacemaking and the Palestinian community.”
The UCC also posted a churchwide prayer for Middle East peace on its Web site that included the following passage: “While leaders in Tel Aviv and Damascus, Tehran, Washington, and southern Lebanon pander to ancient fears, claim the mantle of righteous victim, and pursue their little empires in the name of gods of their own devising, the people of Lebanon and northern Israel are made captive to fear.”
The Reform movement’s Pelavin criticized the prayer’s grouping of the governments of Israel and the United States with the leaderships of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. “It feels not unlike the old ‘Sesame Street’ game, ‘Which of these things doesn’t belong here?’” Pelavin said. “Two of those countries are vibrant, healthy democracies.”
International and foreign church bodies also have been critical of Israeli actions. Pope Benedict XVI said that “neither terrorist acts or reprisals, especially when they have such tragic consequences on the civilian population, can be justified.” The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, said, “In Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank and Israel as well as Iraq, no amount of fear and anger can justify retaliatory targeting of homes, bombing of communities and destruction of a nation’s infrastructure.” Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos, head of Greece’s national church, warned Israel: “Do not provoke our consciences. Do not feed the world condemnation against you. It is not in your interest…. Fear God’s wrath.”