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Christian leaders continue advocacy for Israeli-Palestinian peace

Presiding bishop joins White House meeting

[Episcopal News Service] Christian leaders are urging the U.S. government to step up its leadership in resolving the prolonged stalemate in peace negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, especially in light of a recent controversial move by Israel to establish a new settlement in East Jerusalem.

A Nov. 11 alert from the Episcopal Public Policy Network calls on Episcopalians and other religious advocates to write President Barack Obama asking him to state his "clear and forthright public support for the sharing of Jerusalem as a capital for both Israel and a future Palestinian state."

The EPPN alert, which is received by more than 25,000 subscribers, acknowledges the Episcopal Church's long-standing support for a two-state solution to the conflict "that would have a secure and universally recognized state of Israel living alongside a viable and secure Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as the shared capital of each."

Earlier in the week, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and leaders of other Christian denominations met at the White House with Dennis Ross, special assistant to Obama, and Catherine Powell, director for human rights, to discuss U.S. policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and problems facing Christians in the Holy Land.

The leaders essentially are "calling for a stronger U.S. voice and stronger U.S. leadership on these issues," Ellen Massey, deputy director of Churches for Middle East Peace, the national Christian coalition that arranged the meeting, said in an e-mail to Episcopal News Service. "I … think the urgency of the situation in Jerusalem is one many people are increasingly alarmed at."

The leaders asked during the Nov. 8 meeting that the United States be more forceful in opposing new Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, saying that such action "threatens the possibility of a viable future Palestinian state," according to a statement from CMEP, which includes 24 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant national church bodies and faith-based organizations, including the Episcopal Church.

Other religious leaders present at the meeting included Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Denis James Madden, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Baltimore and chairman-elect of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Neil Irons, executive secretary of the Methodist Council of Bishops; Sara Lisherness, director of compassion, peace and justice for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); and Warren Clark, CMEP executive director.

The church leaders expressed support for the vision of peace presented in Obama's May 2011 speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which he endorsed the 1967 borders, with land swaps, as an appropriate starting point for negotiations.

As explained in the EPPN alert, prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, also known as the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was divided between Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, which occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Since 1967, Israel has occupied East Jerusalem, and while it has mainly allowed universal access to the holy sites, "it has made movement into Jerusalem functionally difficult or impossible for Christians living in the West Bank.

"Moreover, Israel gradually has seized Palestinian land in and around East Jerusalem for the construction of Israeli settlements," the alert said, noting that 5,700 new residential units were announced this fall alone.

"The rapid construction of Israeli settlements in and around East Jerusalem complicates any future peace deal involving Israel living alongside a Palestinian state," the alert continues. Obama "has yet to specifically declare his support for a shared Jerusalem, and thus the Israeli government has felt little pressure from the United States to cease construction efforts."

The CMEP leaders said that the planned Israeli settlement construction will "further isolate Palestinian areas from Jerusalem and make the stated goal of U.S. and Israeli policy -- the two-state solution -- even more difficult to achieve … and that there could be no viable two-state solution without Jerusalem as the capital of both states."

The United Nations, following separate meetings Nov. 14 with leaders on both sides, called on Israelis and Palestinians to resume direct talks "without delay or preconditions."

"Today's discussions are a follow-up to similar meetings held last month, at which both sides agreed to come forward with comprehensive proposals on territory and security within three months," according to a U.N. press release.

The series of meetings are part of a strategy launched in September by the Middle East Quartet – composed of the U.N., the European Union, Russia and the United States – to bring the two sides together again following the breakdown in bilateral talks in September 2010 after Israel refused to extend a 10-month freeze on settlement expansion in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Last September, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas formally presented a bid for the United Nations to recognize as a state the territories he leads. Meanwhile, world and church leaders have warned that lasting peace in the region can only be realized through negotiations between Israel and Palestine, and not via shortcuts.

The U.N. Security Council on Nov. 11 put off a decision on admitting Palestine as a member state while the Palestinians decide whether to continue their bid in light of evidence that they would not amass the required support for a victory and facing the continued U.S. pledge to veto recognition of a Palestinian state.

U.S. political leaders have branded the bid as premature and have threatened to cut off aid to Palestinians as punishment for their efforts to become a separate state.

Phoebe W. Griswold, president of the American Friends of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, said that such a threat is "harsh punishment … Those who suffer most are the ones least able to speak for themselves."

Griswold has just returned from the Middle East where she visited schools, hospitals and health institutions run by the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and supported by the American Friends.

"Those in East Jerusalem and the West Bank are, once again, in a crisis response," she told ENS.

"Withdrawing aid only confirms to those who suffer the U.S. is no friend to them," she said. "Fortunately, the Diocese of Jerusalem lives beyond such small thinking and continues to do what they can to meet humanitarian need. This is the birthplace of our faith. AFEDJ honors that by supporting their mission."

-- Matthew Davies is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

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