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Historic Black Churches Delegation to Holy Land Finds Pain and Hope

From Church World Service

  ORLANDO -- A delegation of leaders from historic African American churches just returning from Jerusalem and the Holy Land says conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank painfully echo the injustices suffered by people of color during South Africa's apartheid era and during the pre-civil rights era in America.

Black church leaders in the delegation, hosted by global humanitarian agency Church World Service, now are vowing to work with their communions and congregations, the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith communities, politicians, and Palestinians in diaspora to focus attention on the deteriorating situation in the Holy Land.

On a visit to the Israeli-built barrier now separating Palestinian residents in the West Bank from residents in Israel-controlled Jerusalem, African Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop E. Earl McCloud, Jr., said, "I'm surprised by the blatant attempt of Israelis to separate themselves. I've also been on the backside of fear of Black people," he said, "and it makes me sad to see this wall and to hear so many say this wall has been built with money I have sent to the U.S. government in tax dollars."

Supporters call the nearly 26-foot-high wall portion of the barrier, which in some places runs through the home sites and farms of Palestinians, a "separation barrier." Palestinians alternately referred to it as the "apartheid wall" or the "segregation wall."

The controversial 400-mile-plus West Bank barrier is being constructed by Israel using a network of 90% fences, with vehicle-barrier trenches averaging 65 yards wide, and 10% of concrete wall that is up to 26 feet high.

Supporters say the barrier is necessary to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian suicide bombing in public places. Opponents say the barrier violates international law, is an illegal effort to annex Palestinian land, and severely restricts the normal life movements of Palestinians who live in the area.

This delegation, led by Church World Service Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer the Rev. John L. McCullough, is the first time that the historic Black churches have been invited by Christian leaders in the Holy Land to come as a group to witness people living severed in the heart of a divided land.

Delegates are reporting their findings today (Thurs Nov 9) in Orlando at the combined General Assembly of Church World Service and the National Council of Churches U.S.A.--an annual meeting of leaders from 35 mainline Christian denominations.

"I found myself tearful at times as I looked at the consequences of that wall," said delegate Rev. Dr. Charles Mock of the National Baptist Convention USA. "I come back with mixed emotions because I also see complacency and a lack of commitment to struggle in defense of the have-nots at home."

The 12-person delegation met with heads of the region's oldest Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches and with Anglican, Lutheran, and Jewish faith leaders and government officials. The group also conferred with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry representative Shmuel ben Shmuel.

In a sign of unity, after his meeting with the Church World Service delegation on Nov. 6, His Beatitude Theophilos, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, was moved to visit the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem following Reformation Day services at the church. It was the first time that the Greek Orthodox Church--considered the mother church of Christendom in the Holy Land--has visited the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jerusalem.

The patriarch told the delegation that Jerusalem, the Holy City, "has been watered with the very blood of Christ," and that the Christian presence survives only because of the holy places.

He added that beyond moral support, the church also needed material support--in the form of schools, churches and job opportunities to assist the Holy City's mostly-Palestinian Christian community.

President Abbas tells delegation: Palestinians' share of Palestine down from 95% to 22%

In a November 2 meeting with the delegation, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas shared his views on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. "We should have our own state within the borders outlined in the 1967 agreement," Abbas said. "In the past, Palestinians owned 95% of Palestine. The share now is 22%."

Abbas said the international siege over the past ten months has increased the suffering of people living in occupied Palestine, "with invasions every day, fatalities, and increased demolitions of houses."

"We recognize the right of Israelis to live, but we also want them to recognize our right to live safely within our own borders," Abbas told the delegation.

When Abbas revealed that his optimism has grown because the American government now is trying to facilitate, with the help of a mediator, discussions to resolve the conflict, CWS head McCullough told him, "I am encouraged to hear you say that America has been showing some positive signs."

As a relief, development and refugee assistance agency, Church World Service advocates in the U.S. and internationally for human rights and justice.

The Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, said to the delegation, "The conflict is not just the business of Palestinians and Israelis. It is the business of every Christian whose obligation is to witness justice, equality and love for all, not just for a chosen few." He described life for Palestinian Christians as an existence "behind walls, with checkpoints, like prisoners living life by permit."

Sabbah said that Palestinian terrorism, violence, and anti-Israel attitudes all are fired by the Israeli occupation of Palestine. "Take away the occupation and all these things will go away," he said.

He asked the delegation to tell U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that "Palestinians are able to live with and love the Israelis, but the Israelis do not believe this. They will live in peace once the Palestinians have their rights."

The severely limited freedom and discrimination against Palestinians, who comprise the majority of the Christian presence in Jerusalem, make social and economic development impossible. "In the political arena," Sabbah said. "I think that we have no place on the agenda and we do not count," he said.

In another meeting, Bishop Aris, the Armenian Patriarchate Ecumenical Officer for Jerusalem, said he wanted the people and government of the U.S. to know that "We have the same Lord and Savior, the same Bible that unites us.

"Christians should therefore unify in the common cause of maintaining the holy places of Jerusalem for people of all faiths," Aris said.

The Christian community represents less than 1.5 percent of the population in the region. Says CWS head McCullough, "If the current situation continues it may well result in the extinction of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and seriously endanger continued collaboration amongst the three Abrahamic traditions represented there.

"The mostly Palestinian Christian community is facing a period of intense crisis because of the expanded separation wall and restrictions on the ability of Palestinians to travel from the West Bank into Jerusalem," McCullough said. "Israeli security and defense policies also seem to unfairly infringe upon the churches, including the effective conduct of their affairs, the nurturing of their members, and the fulfillment of their ministries," he said.

The American group also visited the Evangelical Lutheran School in Beit Sahour, just outside Bethlehem. The school's principal, Salameh Bishara says the pass laws for Palestinians--similar to the apartheid-era pass laws in South Africa--mean that he and other Palestinians in the occupied territories "are living in a box; a big ghetto. My daughter has never been to the sea. We live a one-hour drive from the Dead Sea and I cannot take her."

Bishop Louis Hunter of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, said, "I don't care what anyone says, I'm going to do something for the kids in that Lutheran School." Hunter, whose episcopal seat is in Suwanee, Georgia, also declared that he will "become a megaphone in the AME Zion Church" to bring attention to the inequality in the Holy Land.

Others delegates share those sentiments. Christian Methodist Episcopal Church Bishop Ronald M. Cunningham says he is "prepared to become a part of a prophetic ministry to bring this situation to the forefront and to be a part of the search for a solution."

AME Bishop McCloud says, "We're going to be looking for ways to positively and dramatically impact this situation. We're going to work with Church World Service. We're going to work with the Congressional Black Caucus. We're going to work with the ecumenical leadership. We've got to bring attention to this in America."

In a somber assessment, Church World Service Board Representative Dr. Belletech Deressa of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, observed, "This crisis is different to me than any other one. I always thought that yes, there is a difference between the Palestinians and the Jews; yes, there is animosity. But now I realize that it is worse than racism and worse than apartheid. I don't really have a word for it."

In describing Church World Service's decision to sponsor the historic delegation in response to the invitation from the Mideast church leaders, McCullough said, "Our goal was to provide African-American religious leaders with an opportunity to analyze this crisis through the lens of their faith and their experience of the civil rights movement in the United States.

"We wanted to give them an open forum through which they could expand their previous knowledge of the region and give them sufficient space to reach to their own unbiased assessment."

Other members of the delegation included Dr. Tyrone Pitts, general secretary, Progressive National Baptist Convention; Rev. Dr. A. Wayne Johnson, general secretary, National Missionary Baptist Convention of America; Rev. George T. Brooks, Sr., pastor of St. James Baptist Church, National Baptist Church of America; and Church World Service staffers Lesley Crosson, media relations officer, Cheryl Dudley, Senior Advisor to the Executive Director, and David Weaver, director of mission relationships and witness.