Peacemaking and prophecy: US Christians' Mideast ties

Although the Bush administration dragged its feet before jumping into the search for Middle East peace, American Christians have been passionately connected in complex ways to the 50-year struggle. Their involvement is spurred by convictions of the demands of their faith. Yet theological differences within the Christian community play out in strikingly diverse approaches to the conflict.

Mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches feel called to peacemaking and to steps that seek justice and security for both parties. Conservative evangelicals strongly back Israel's control over the territory what they see as the first step in fulfilling biblical prophecies of the Second Coming. In fact, Christian Zionism, with its centuries-old roots in Britain and the US, preceded Jewish Zionism by several years.

Recently, media reports have speculated on whether President Bush might share Christian Zionist views, as President Reagan did, and how they might affect US policy. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is also a deeply religious evangelical.

As the violence has escalated, both Christian communities have intensified their efforts to influence US actions and build support at the grass roots.

Focus on peace and justice

Ties to a Jerusalem churches and Palestinian Christians give members of mainline churches greater familiarity than most Americans have with the daily realities of the occupation. They are now trying to respond to the damage from Israel's military incursion on church facilities in the West Bank, including schools and hospitals Â- some of which they helped build. Many feel compelled to speak out more forcefully about the injustices of Israel's 35-year occupation.

• On April 13, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is currently teaching in the US, condemned the suicide bombings and "the corruption of young minds," but strongly criticized Israel for what "it has done to another people to guarantee its [own] existence."

"All my visits [to the Holy Land] reminded me of what had happened to us in South Africa," he said, detailing a series of humiliations. "Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their own humiliation? Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people."

He spoke at a New England conference in support of Sabeel, a Palestinian ecumenical center in Jerusalem committed to nonviolence.

"Israel has three options: Revert to the previous stalemate filled with hatred and vengeance; exterminate all Palestinians; or strive for peace based on justice Â- withdrawal from the territories and establishment of a viable Palestinian state with secure borders," Archbishop Tutu said. Calling on Americans to speak out, he added, "Peace is possible Â- we are free today in South Africa because of people like yourselves."

• Bishop Thomas Shaw, the top Episcopal leader in Massachusetts, took the unprecedented step last October of protesting with two other bishops in front of the Israeli consulate in Boston. The public action shocked local Jewish leaders, who felt Israeli suffering was being ignored, and initiated an in-depth conversation between the two faith communities. Shaw, who lived for a time in Jerusalem, says that Israeli and US governments - and the Jewish community - must also acknowledge the injustices that the Palestinians have suffered.

• Through a coalition called Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Protestants and Catholics are organizing at the grass roots and holding monthly prayer vigils in every state. They are urging Congress not to pass proposed legislation to close down Palestinian offices in the US and restrict those at the UN.

"It seems unconscionable that Congress would block a pathway back to negotiation at this time," says Corinne Whitlatch, director of CMEP.

The coalition is also disheartened by the scant media attention paid to reconciliatory efforts Â- such as the Alexandria Declaration of last January. At a gathering hosted by the grand imam of Egypt, more than a dozen top Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders pledged to use their religious and moral authority to bring an end to the violence. Media indifference keeps people in the dark about such initiatives and undermines their impact, Ms. Whitlatch says.

Alliance on the right

Some of the most ardent supporters of Israel at the April 15 Capitol Hill rally for the Jewish state were Christian Zionist groups such as the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) and Christians for Israel. For them, Israel has a divine right to the land Palestinians consider as their future state.

Evangelicals' close alliance with the Israeli right began when the Likud party first came to power in 1977. Menachim Begin found common ground with such leaders as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson. Likud called the West Bank "Judea and Samaria" and used religious arguments for confiscating Arab land for Jewish settlements. And evangelicals have provided millions in financial support to transfer Jews from Russia and other countries, provide social assistance programs in Israel, and even support Jewish settlements in the territories, although settlements violate international law.

ICEJ, a Christian group with offices in many countries, also promotes the movement of foreign embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in support of Israeli claims. "Israelis often feel like the world is against them and trying to tell them what to do, and it's well received when we let them know we understand and are with them," says Susan Michael, of ICEJ's US office.

Israeli leaders such as Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon have met frequently with US evangelical leaders. According to Religion News Service, the Israeli Embassy has begun monthly strategy discussions with evangelicals on such topics as boosting Israeli tourism and sponsoring pro-Israel events on US campuses.

But Christian links to a Jewish state in the Holy Land go much further back, to 17th century millennial thinking. A British member of Parliament first promoted Jewish settlement in Palestine in 1621. Christian Zionism began with American William Blackstone, who wrote a popular book, "Jesus Is Coming," based on premillennial dispensationalism. In 1891, Blackstone led the first US lobbying effort for a Jewish state. Lord Balfour, author of the famous 1917 Balfour Declaration, was an evangelical raised on dispensationalism.

Many evangelicals are not Zionists, however. Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU) was formed to educate Westerners about the Arab Christian churches in the region, whose history goes back to the Pentecost, says Don Wagner, EMEU founder and professor at North Park University in Evanston, Ill.

His group encourages partnerships between American and West Bank churches. Dr. Wagner's church home, First Presbyterian in Evanston, has built a close relationship with Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, whose Palestinian pastor, the Rev. Mitri Raheb, "preaches in our pulpit every year."

Unfortunately, he says, as the world has focused on the standoff between the Israeli military and Palestinian militias holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, the military entered and seriously damaged nearby Christmas Lutheran Church.

Evangelicals like himself are now considering the urgent need for groups to go and be a protective force, help get food into the cities, and act as human-rights monitors, Wagner says.

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