First reflections of ecumenical delegation to Middle East

 History was made last month when the first high-level ecumenical visit to the Middle East in 20 years took place. Representatives of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational Federation and Baptist Union, and the United Reform Church took part in the two-week mission. Fr Frank Turner, assistant general secretary of the Catholic Bishops' Conference committee for international affairs was one of the members of the twelve-strong group. They met government and diplomatic representatives, church leaders, civil society organisations, visited development projects and learned about the daily lives and worship of ordinary people in Israel-Palestine and neighbouring countries. This summer they will be publishing a detailed report of their findings. These are some of their preliminary reflections: 1) The intifada began among deprived Palestinians in despair at the failure of the seven-year "Oslo Peace Process" to deliver either peace or prospects of prosperity . The weight of the Israeli response has subsequently created a situation of indescribable suffering among Palestinians within the Occupied Territories and deep anxiety and uncertainty throughout the Middle East, which is in danger of fanning the flames of extremism. 2) Violence, whether from stick or stone, or lethally from tank and helicopter-gunship, has not and will not solve the Palestine-Israel crisis, nor will simplistic calls from the Israel Government to Yasser Arafat to "stop the violence". 3) The Israeli claim to have acted with restraint in response to the Intifada does not bear examination. A senior Israeli Government official told the delegation that "if there is one building standing in Beit Jala after they fired at Jerusalem, it means that we have not responded at all....if there are more Palestinians dead it is because we shoot better." 4) Given the asymmetries of power between Israel and the Palestinians, it is incumbent on the Israeli Government not to act with grossly disproportionate force. 5) Deep questions of the meaning of "non -racism" and "security" face Israeli society in the wake of 33 years illegal occupation which were summed up by one Palestinian saying, "Everything conspires to tell us that we don't count. In the name of security they get away with murder". 6) The generally accepted "two-state" solution to satisfy competing claims between Israelis and Palestinians must allow independence to both states and must also be implemented in a way which recognises the need for interdependence between the two nations. The devastation of Palestinian lives - economically, financially, socially and culturally - by repeated "closures" will not provide the trust upon which such a relationship could develop. 7) Questions of identity, whether of Arab, Jew, Israeli, Palestinian, Christian or Muslim, need to be respected within frameworks of peaceful co-operation and co-existence. 8) The crucial issue of a "Right to Return" for refugees is one marked by conflicting perceptions. From Israelis we heard of the need to preserve the integrity of the Jewish State From Palestinians we heard of the need to recognise not only a past injustice but a present right, even though that right may not be capable of being fully exercised. 9) The acute human need resulting from the severe political, economic and social problems of the last six months in Israel-Palestine urgently require more international aid from both governments and non governmental organisations. 10) In the region which is the cradle of the three great Abrahamic faiths - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - religion is not itself a cause of conflict, and in many instances is a source of reconciliation. A pluralistically-minded Zionist Jew told the delegation that "the land does not belong to us - we belong to the land - and the same can be said of Christians and Muslims". The same speaker also averred that "there can be no peace without truth and reconciliation". 11) Inter faith contact and dialogue in the Middle East (as also in Britain and Ireland) must assume ever higher priority in a shrinking world. 12) The Palestinian struggle for independence will not cease, partly because of the strengths within Palestinian civil society which compensate for some of the failings of the Palestinian Authority. 13) The concern of the early Christian communities for the church in Jerusalem needs today to be translated into an active support of the churches throughout the Middle East. Churches are fast declining in numbers because of the intense pressure of violence, injustice and emigration. Additionally, they feel invisible to, and neglected by their fellow Christians in the West. 14) The Churches of the West need to recognise and try to help reverse the drastic reduction in pilgrimages which, in recent months, has had catastrophic consequences in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places. 15) The British and American Governments, in particular, need to re-examine their Middle East policies so as to support the emergence of solutions to the region's problems that primarily serve the best interests of the people who live there. All over the region the cry of "double standards" is loudly heard, contrasting Western policy on Israel with that on Iraq and other countries which defy UN Resolutions. 16) The British Government and people need to recognise their particular contribution to the history of the region and hence responsibility for some of its problems. There is a belief that Britain, with its European partners, could and should play a stronger political and economic role so that it be no longer said that Britain betrayed its Mandate and has since failed to live up to its responsibilities. The delegates were: the Very Rev Robert Davidson, Church of Scotland; Rev Frederick George, Baptist Union; Rev Christopher Gillham, Congregational Federation; Ms Esther Hookway, Greek Orthodox Church; Mrs Gillian Kingston, Methodist Church in Ireland; Rt Rev Michael Langrish, Church of England; Rev Sigrid Marten, Church of Scotland; Dr Charles Reed, Church of England; Paul Renshaw CTBI; Rev Hywel Wyn Richards, Union of Welsh Independents; Rev Dr Frank Turner, Catholic Bishops' Conference; Rev John Waller, United Reformed Church. For previous reports on the CTBI visit, and other Middle East stories use the ICN Search facility.

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