Church leaders around the world, watching with horror as the Holy Land slips deeper into chaos and violence, are urging renewed peace efforts--and welcoming the announcement by President George W. Bush that he is sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to the region.
'These are times of great suffering to the Palestinian people--and the church in Palestine,' said Bishop Riah Abu el-Assal of the Diocese in Jerusalem and the Middle East in an April 4 letter to international friends. Riah said that he had joined other church leaders in Jerusalem 'protesting against the government's unimaginable retaliation in our cities and among our people.'
A delegation of church leaders was prevented from entering beleaguered Bethlehem April 4, 'despite the fact that we made clear that we were marching in search for peace, and as peacemakers,' Riah said. He added that a demonstration at a checkpoint leading to the city of Ramallah 'attended by thousands of peace activists, both Israelis and Palestinians,' was dispersed by Israeli soldiers.
Some of Bethlehem's churches have been damaged, according to press reports. Hospital sources said that a Roman Catholic priest had been killed and seven nuns were wounded during the incursion. Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem said that Bethlehem's Christmas Church, the home of the pastor and the church's International Center had been shelled. Pastor Mitri Raheb and his family were huddled on the second floor to avoid gunfire, unable to assess damage to the church itself. In an e-mail message April 3 he said that 'Bethlehem is experiencing the worst invasion for decades, if not centuries.' Eyewitness accounts also said that the Omar Mosque across from Manger Square was in flames.
Brink of catastrophe
Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrote Bush urging him to help establish an international presence in the region--and objecting to the damage to the Christmas Church. He sent along an urgent appeal from church leaders in Jerusalem for help in stopping the 'wanton, indiscriminate killings' and the damage to 'our religious institutions.' The patriarchs, archbishops and heads of the churches offered to play a part 'in mediating for the peace and security of all the people in this land.'
Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey appealed for all sides to step back from 'the brink of catastrophe.' He said that 'having returned very recently from the Holy Land myself, I am convinced more than ever that the international community must redouble its efforts to help the two ancient peoples--Arabs and Jews--to find a lasting peace.' That will mean salving the pain and frustration of the Palestinians 'who long for a land of their own, where they can live in freedom and create a new and prosperous future,' as well as honoring 'the deep Israeli yearning for peace and security and an end to the hostility towards Israel's very existence,' Carey said.
General Secretary Ishmael Noko of the Lutheran World Federation wrote to Arafat, as well as Sharon, describing as 'morally abhorrent and beyond any possible justification' the suicide bombings that have been terrorizing innocent Israeli citizens. He reminded Arafat that he had publicly declared his dedication to peace and rejection of the suicide bombings, arguing that his 'leadership is more important to your people than ever.'
Henry Carse of St. George's College in Jerusalem, reported that the Israeli soldiers were not practicing restraint. 'The world is watching, partly unbelieving, partly numbed, partly approving, possibly because people think that this killing of unarmed civilians and armed Palestinians all together and indiscriminately is a just retribution for the terrible and contemptible suicide bombings of unarmed Israel civilians by some Palestinians.'
Role for United Nations
Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold issued a statement April 1 calling for a United Nations peacekeeping force and the direct involvement of Powell. A copy was sent to the president and Powell. 'My prayer is that you will be given both wisdom and courage to make the decisions necessary to help end this long conflict so that both parties might enjoy a lasting and just peace,' he told Bush in a covering letter.
The statement was shared with the Episcopal Public Policy Network with suggestions for responses--such as calling the president's comment line (202-456-1414) or Congressional representatives (800-513-3472) to express support for the administration's new initiatives.
The president demanded an immediate cease-fire by the Palestinians, severely chided Yasser Arafat and called for Israel to pull its troops out of the West Bank cities it has occupied. Noting that the situation has 'deteriorated dramatically' in the last week, Bush said, 'When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying--the future of the Palestinian people and of the Israeli people.'
Bush called on Israel to 'halt incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas and begin the withdrawal from those cities it has recently occupied.' He also said that Israel must 'show a respect for, and a concern about, the dignity of the Palestinian people' and lift its blockade of civilians by opening border crossings and checkpoints. He announced that he is sending Powell to the region to 'seek broad international support' for 'an immediate and meaningful cease-fire.'
Speaking as 'a committed friend of Israel,' Bush said, 'The outlines of a just settlement are clear: Two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security. This can be a time for hope but it calls for leadership, not for terror.' He said that Arafat had 'missed his opportunities and thereby betrayed the hopes of the people he is supposed to lead.'
Bush's action followed strong international criticism of his recent statements and street protests in Islamic capitals against Israel's reoccupation of all major cities on the West Bank. The European Union suggested that the United States was no longer in a position to serve as mediator for a peace agreement. Pope John Paul II sharply criticized Israel for 'humiliating' the Palestinians while deploring the acts of terrorism. The statement said that the Pope 'rejects unjust conditions and humiliations imposed on the Palestinian people as well as the reprisals and revenge attacks which do nothing but feed the sense of frustration and hatred.'
Other church leaders welcomed Bush's statement. National Council of Churches (NCC) General Secretary Bob Edgar commended the president for 'his decisive response to the escalating violence in the Middle East… We hope it signals a more assertive level of involvement by the Bush Administration in seeking a halt to the senseless slaughter of innocent persons on both sides, and rapid movement toward an enduring solution to the causes of the conflict.' He noted that an NCC-sponsored ecumenical delegation of church leaders would be visiting the region in a few weeks. '
While church leaders in the region welcomed the news that the president was sending Powell, they expressed a deep concern that the situation was continuing to deteriorate, according to the Rev. Brian Grieves, peace and justice officer for the Episcopal Church, who has been in telephone contact with church leaders. 'They are telling me that the carnage needs to stop immediately because the death toll is mounting and Powell may arrive to an even more desperate situation.'