International Affairs, Peace & Human Security

WCC Press Release, 24 May 1995

Following his first official visit as General Secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) to member churches in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Dr Konrad Raiser says the peace process in the region "is in severe crisis".

During his visit (15-21 May), Dr Raiser held discussion with heads of churches, local Christian clergy and laity, political leaders and community workers.

Protest against land confiscations. Jerusalem, 1996

Upon his return to WCC headquarters in Geneva, Dr Raiser said, "The possibilities of a second round of negotiations in the current peace process seem slim. In my discussions with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, both noted concern about the narrow majority they now have in the Knesset which made them cautious about taking further dramatic initiatives ahead of the 1996 elections. Both emphasized security concerns which seemed to override their commitment to furthering the peace process."

"President Arafat spoke of a complete impasse in the peace process, due to Israeli intransigence, and a sense of abandonment by the international community. We heard warnings from many on the Palestinian side that, unless the peace process is brought back on track, a general uprising and possibly uncontrollable violence will be the result."

Dr Raiser and his delegation made their visit against a history of concern for the region by the WCC, which dates back to its foundation in 1948. The WCC has repeatedly affirmed its conviction that the mutual recognition of the Israeli and Palestinian people on the basis of equality is the only guarantee for peace and security in the region. It has further affirmed that the rights to self-determination of the Israeli and Palestinian people are mutually interdependent. This policy was repeated last by the WCC Central Committee in March 1990 in the context of a Call to Prayer for Peace in the Holy Land.

Through its member churches, for well over forty years the WCC has ministered to the needs of the people of the region, especially the displaced and the uprooted, seeking justice and promoting reconciliation.

In September 1993 the WCC Executive Committee "warmly" welcomed the signing of an accord by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization although, at the same time, it cautioned that the "breakthrough" did not yet ensure peace or guarantee justice. Full, speedy implementation of those accords, it said, was indispensable.

The aim of Dr Raiser's visit was to visit member churches and hear assessments by religious and political leaders of the current situation. As a result, Dr Raiser and his delegation make the following observations:

1. Memorandum of Their Beatitudes, The Patriarchs and of the Heads of Christian Communities in Jerusalem. This historic joint statement, signed 14 November 1994 and concerning the status of Jerusalem, should be affirmed and supported. The statement said, "(Jerusalem) cannot belong exclusively to one people or to only one religion." It added that Jerusalem requires a "special judicial and political statute which reflects the universal importance and significance of the city." The statement concluded that experience showed any status for Jerusalem as an "open city" would need international guarantees.

The team heard of a number of plans by churches and other religious organisations in the region to hold discussions on the special character of Jerusalem.

2. Land Confiscations and Building Rights: The delegation heard numerous complaints from Palestinians and Israeli human rights advocates about the Israeli policy of land confiscations. This was seen to be altering the situation on the ground ahead of negotiations, particularly in the case of Jerusalem where it was changing the city's unique demographic character and balance.

Other strong complaints centred on the refusal of the Israeli authorities to grant building permits to churches and others on Arab-owned land. The team heard stories of refusals being justified on the grounds of areas having been designated "green belt." However, examples were given that following confiscations and once in Israeli hands the same areas were reclassified and building was allowed.

3. Closures: The delegation heard repeated stories of the difficulties and vast economic cost caused by the many closures made by the Israeli authorities of the crossing points into Jerusalem, the West Bank and especially Gaza. The denial of access to Jerusalem during Holy Week earlier this year was cited as one example of the humiliation and suffering caused by the closures. Equally important, the closures also make it impossible for many people to reach their places of work, clinics, schools and other social institutions.

4. The Concept of "Peace": The team heard growing cynicism on all sides about the peace process. The delegation believes there is a danger now that a real understanding of what peace implies will be lost. The delegation is clear that peace should not be allowed to become an empty political slogan.

For the Israeli authorities, peace was equated with national security achieved, where necessary, through military means.

The delegation believes there is a need to reclaim the concept of peace from narrow definitions and to persuade those concerned that genuine security can only be based on the establishment of justice for all.

From the Palestinian side, many affirmations were made that "This is no peace!".

5. International Dimension: Many Palestinians were deeply disappointed at what they saw as the international community's failure to meet political and economic promises, made after the Oslo Accords, to support the peace process.

The delegation's visit coincided with the use by the USA, for the first time in five years, of its veto in the UN Security Council, on this occasion over the issue of land confiscations by Israel. Palestinians said they felt abandoned and betrayed by this action although this was somewhat tempered by a feeling of encouragement that the other fourteen members of the Security Council had voted in favour of the resolution which had been critical of Israel.

Some of those most hopeful at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords displayed serious disillusionment and even despair about the current situation.

Some senior and respected Palestinian figures considered that the negotiations had failed and the time had come for the Palestinian side to withdraw their negotiating team from Cairo and to challenge the international community to resume its responsibility to break the impasse.

6. Role of Christian Community: The delegation believes that the Christian witness around the world to those things which make for true peace in this particular region continues to be essential.

The Christian community in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza is unique in the historical role it has played in keeping lines of communication open between all communities. This must continue and, obviously, requires a continuing Christian presence in Jerusalem and the region. However, local Christian communities see themselves under both political and demographic threat.

During the last 30 years, the Christian population of the region has continuously declined in numbers. Today, Christians have been reduced to 2.3% of the population of the West Bank and Gaza. The percentage for Israel is 2.5%. Numbers have dwindled mainly through the emigration of those who find the current political and social situation unbearable.

Many of those Palestinian Christians who remain fear the day may arrive when the only Christians in Jerusalem are visiting pilgrims who will see just dead stones and museums; the "living stones" who worship, work and serve in the region will be no more.

Despite all the obstacles, the delegation nevertheless encountered those on all sides still deeply committed to the pursuit of a just peace. The delegation was encouraged to hear from Jewish religious leaders engaged in inter-faith dialogue. It was clear that on the Palestinian side, too, there was also a willingness for dialogue as well as an awareness that Israeli political rhetoric is not the whole picture.

In a further comment in Geneva, Dr Raiser said, "During my visit to Gaza, where I was impressed by the social programmes organised by the Near East Council of Churches, I confirmed that the WCC's long support of the legitimate hopes of the Palestinian people would continue through prayer, advocacy and humanitarian aid. I am also aware that Israelis have invested considerable hopes in the peace process and, in this, they should be supported and nourished. But, for a legitimate peace process to continue, it is essential that the Palestinian people, who are unequal partners, be supported and encouraged not to give up hope for peace."

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