Ecumenical delegation returns from the Middle East
26 March 2001

As warning shots were fired from a nearby army post, the Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, was one of four representatives of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) who stood among uprooted, ancient olive trees and destroyed homes and factories from which the Palestinian owners had been evicted. The group watched as a bulldozer destroyed fields of crop as part of measures to clear the area 500 metres on both sides of a road commandeered for the use of a small number of settler families near the Netzarim crossing. Bishop Langrish said, "Here we were brought face to face with the daily suffering of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."

The group of twelve included representatives of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, a former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Past Presidents of the Congregational Federation and Baptist Union and the Deputy General Secretary of the United Reformed Church. ‘This is the first high-level visit to the Middle East for twenty years, said Mr Paul Renshaw, CTBI Coordinating Secretary for International Affairs. He added that, though the visit had been a long time in the planning stage in consultation with the Middle East Council of Churches, it was especially timely in view of the death of the Middle East Peace Process initiated in Oslo in 1993.

By working as a whole group, but at times splitting into smaller units, the delegation was able to visit, in an intensive two-week programme, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel-Palestine. Within the later work was done in Jerusalem, Gaza, Galilee and the West Bank. It had been hoped to send a small group to Iraq but this had to be cancelled at the last minute when visas, though approved, were not issued.

Ms Gillian Kingston, Methodist Church in Ireland (Moderator of the CTBI Church Representatives’ Meeting), said the visit had included conversations with a very wide range of people from government ministers to Hizbollah activists, from Muslim Grand Muftis and Patriarchs of the ancient churches of the Middle East to refugees in Beirut and Amman and development workers among the urban poor in Cairo. "We walked through the squalor of refugee camps and sat in the elegance of bishops’ palaces." She added, however, that there were voices which the delegation had not heard and the delegation made no claim to understand fully the life of the region or offer solutions to its serious and urgent problems.

"We pray for the peace of Jerusalem" said Gillian Kingston, "and the future of Jerusalem as an open city for two peoples and three faiths is a key issue. However, our prayers now go much wider than Jerusalem: to Damascus and Beirut, to Cairo and Beni Suef, to Gaza and Galilee, Bethlehem and Hebron. Our prayers need to be matched by the most creative thinking and compassionate acting. We cannot see the Middle East as someone else’s problem."

Both she and Paul Renshaw emphasised that the group felt compelled by its experiences, and a deep sense of solidarity with the region and its people, to note down some immediate reflections on what it had heard and seen, particularly with reference to Israel-Palestine.

Churches Together in Britain and Ireland Ecumenical Visit to the Middle East 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 Israeli 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 cooperation 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.

List of Delegates:
Very Rev.Dr. Robert Davidson, Church of Scotland
Rev. Frederick George, Baptist Union of Great Britain
Rev. Christopher Gillham, Congregational Federation
Esther Hookway, Greek Orthodox Church
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, England and Wales
Rev. John Waller, United Reformed Church

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