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Church protest

Despite the continued strength and vitality of the Christian Zionist lobby in America, in the last few months there have been signs that it is also amongst the church that significant steps are being taken to pressurise Israel into compliance with international standards, including symbolically-loaded methods such as divestment, boycotts and sanctions.

The most recent of these developments occurred at the Anglican Consultative Council that met in Nottingham at the end of June. A resolution was unanimously passed, endorsing the findings of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network’s (APJN) visit to Palestine last year. In their statement released last September, the APJN condemned “the draconian conditions of the continuing Occupation under which so many Palestinians live”, and offered “not only our solidarity for a just peace, but also our observation that it is the Occupation in its many facets that foments the violence and fuels the conflict”. The successful resolution also included praise for the moves made by the US Episcopal Church “to take appropriate action where it finds that its corporate investments support the occupation of Palestinian lands or violence against innocent Israelis”. This latter clause was not enough ‘balance’ for some, including former-Archbishop George Carey, who denounced the resolution as “appalling”, going on to add, “It is very divisive in terms of opening up old wounds and is another blow to Israel”.

The reference to the Episcopal Church in America hints at a broader inclination amongst many of the mainline churches on both sides of the Atlantic to use practical and moral resources at their disposal to bring about a just peace in the Middle East. This year’s upcoming Methodist Church conference in the UK is also going to be examining a proposal for a review of its investments in companies that in some way support Israel’s occupation. Meanwhile, in America, last month saw Virginia’s United Methodists demand that their church move to divest from companies who are implicated in the confiscation of Palestinian land by Israel or the destruction of Palestinian homes. Arguably one of the trend-setters of this recent move to action was the US Presbyterian Church, which last summer voted overwhelmingly 431 to 62 to employ economic sanctions against businesses profiting from the occupation. Its significance lay in the fact that there were now concrete measures being advocated to back up previous denunciations of Israel’s on-going military occupation.

The emergence of these kinds of high-profile campaigns for justice builds on years of hard work done by other church groups or Christian-background NGOs. The foundations for these recent inroads in the mainstream of the Church have been laid by the likes of the British-based Amos Trust, the liberation theology centre in Jerusalem Sabeel, Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), to mention a few, not to mention the resistance offered by indigenous Palestinian Christians. Organisations guided by a religious-inspired ethos such as Christian Aid and World Vision are also keenly involved in on-the-ground projects, and international campaigning.

Other factors include an increased awareness and appreciation of the Palestinian struggle, amongst both the public, and specifically church-goers, that particularly in Britain has begun to take hold in the last few years. One reason for this is the actions of the Israeli government in suppressing the Palestinian intifada. Although television news gives a distorted view of realities on the ground, Israeli tanks on Palestinian streets, rows of demolished homes, and a large number of Palestinian civilian casualties are hard to hide. Israeli land confiscation policies that remain largely unseen and poorly understood may be the primary aggravator, but more obvious manifestations of the occupation, such as the Separation Wall, have proved to be useful in raising awareness of the Palestinian plight.

The Wall in particular has proved to be a key issue for many in the Church. Around Bethlehem, the Separation Wall is at an advanced stage, cutting into the north of the city to embrace Rachel’s Tomb, and more seriously, rendering impossible any natural expansion of the Bethlehem ‘triangle’ (Bethlehem – Beit Jala – Beit Sahour). Dependent villages are left stranded on the other side of the Wall, and many churches in Britain and America are receiving stories from their Palestinian co-religionists of arbitrary land seizure with both sympathy, and anger.

The response to these developments from Israel’s apologists has been unsurprising. The short-lived Associated Teachers Union (AUT) boycott of Israeli academia showed just how hard it remains to officially advance a position that advocates forcing Israel into complying with international standards of justice. The reactions in the church from pro-Israeli groups have varied; from cries of anti-semitism, to more hand-wringing appeals for ‘even-handedness’ and ‘reconciliation’. There is a very real battle still to be won, though the shrillness of the Israel lobby’s counter-attacks perhaps hints at recognition of the shift in public opinion. Furthermore, for all the steps taken by numerous denominations, the evangelical Christian Zionist bloc in America remains a formidable obstacle. Nevertheless, the growing stress amongst churches that permanent peace in the region depends on justice for the Palestinians is cause for hope, even as the Sharon-designed Palestinian prison-state takes shape.

Published in Middle East International.

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