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Christians hit theological rift on Mideast policy

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Now, engaged Christians take sides largely according to one of two perspectives. One is that faithfulness equals pursuit of justice by ending Israel's occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories. The other is that being faithful means supporting Israel to honor God's prophecy as stated in Ezekiel 37:21: "I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land."

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How Ezekiel and other apocalyptic literature is understood isn't the only question for agonizing Christians, but it is key, says Gordon College professor Ted Hildebrandt. "Do you read it like a newspaper? Or do you read it like 'Pilgrim's Progress'?" he asks. "A lot of times people are born into one tradition or the other, but what we need to be asking is, 'What is justice? What would Jesus do?' "

Massachusetts Episcopalians, are an example of how people of the same faith can agree on a duty to advance justice abroad, but they split over what that means for Israel.

"I think people [in my congregation] recognize the weight of the moral mandate is with the Palestinians, simply because they are occupied and oppressed," says the Rev. Richard Signore of Bourne, Mass. "Some lay people say it's too complex and we should leave it to the experts, but I don't accept that. To me, this really is an issue of moral imperative for a people to have self-determination."

He concurs with the three Episcopal bishops who drew national attention in October by picketing the Israeli consulate in Boston. But others in his diocese feel a new calling to profess the opposite.

Dennis Hale had no interest in church life beyond serving as parish treasurer, he says, until the bishops' outspokenness inspired his counter-cause: the Episcopal-Jewish Alliance for Israel, which he founded in March.

"The bishops are not anti-Semites, but I think they are confused about what's going on in Israel," says Mr. Hale, a political scientist at Boston College. Occupation, in his view, is the activity "of a powerful country that has been attacked by its neighbors and has to defend itself.... To say it is simply an injustice that must end is to distort the reality to a point that it doesn't make any sense."

Though Christians have rallied in the past to end slavery, demand civil rights, and dismantle apartheid, many see the Middle East situation as much more difficult to solve.

Perhaps the one area where many Christians agree is to concede that a lasting solution may be out of reach. "This situation transcends the capacity of any local church to respond," says Christianity Today's Mr. Morgan. "You can't just write a check for blankets. That's not the nature of the conflict.... In the 1967 [Six Days War], many Christians saw it as huge confirmation that the Bible is true, prophecy is fulfilled. Here, they're saying, ''maybe peace in the Middle East will never be achieved. And what does that mean for us as peacemakers?' "