U.S. Church Leaders Press President Bush on Problems Facing Holy Land Christians
Fifty leaders of evangelical and mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches and church-related organizations in the U.S. last week delivered a letter to President Bush asking for a full understanding of "the crisis in the Holy Land confronting Christian Palestinians, Christian institutions, and those who wish to visit the birthplace of Christianity."
Stating that the "churches have directed their concerns to the Israeli government but to little avail," the church leaders appealed for the president's intervention to help restore the normal functioning of Christian institutions in Israel and the Occupied Territories and claimed that "it is generally acknowledged that relations of the churches and these institutions with the Israeli government may be the worst they have ever been."
The letter addressed the church leaders' concerns specifically regarding the effects of the separation barrier being constructed by Israel, taxation issues that may force some church institutions to close due to the removal of their longstanding tax-exempt status, and "the denial and delay of visas, by Israel, for clergy and church personnel result[ing] in understaffed seminaries, churches, hospitals, education and other institutions."
Speaking as one of the diverse group of signers, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, said, "Our churches, hospitals, schools, and other institutions are important visible expressions of our faith's concern for humanity. While they serve Christians and non-Christians alike, they are also expressions of our Christian heritage and its many contributions to the region."
Another signer, Brother Robert Schieler, Provincial for the De La Salle Christian Brothers who administer Bethlehem University, emphasized the destructive effects of the separation barrier on Christian and Palestinian populations: "Even if the barrier is intended for security, it has had the very real effects of separating students and faculty from their classrooms, families from one another, farmers from their fields, and Christian worshippers from their churches."
In the letter to President Bush, the church leaders observe, "We find it difficult to be assured by your description on April 14 of the barrier as 'temporary' in light of Israel's plans to extend the barrier far beyond the 1967 Green Line, encompassing on the Israeli side those large West Bank settlements that you implied would remain part of Israel."
Speaking of Bethlehem particularly, Bro. Schieler noted, "The barrier and checkpoints are now cutting off Christians in Bethlehem from Jerusalem just a few miles away. I wonder if U.S. Christians who visit Bethlehem as tourists know that many of their Christian brothers and sisters who live and work and worship where Jesus was born are not able to travel just a few miles to Jerusalem to where Jesus died and was risen. Unfortunately, most American Christians remain woefully uninformed about what is happening in the very land where Jesus walked."
Letter signers included the heads of many Catholic orders and organizations in the United States; the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Presiding Bishops and leaders of many denominations, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America; and Armenian Church of America; evangelical leaders including Leighton Ford, Robert Seiple, and Ron Sider; the heads of relief and development agencies such as World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service, and the Mennonite Central Committee; and many others. The complete text of the letter and list of signers is available at www.cmep.org.
The signers, while specifically raising the concerns of church institutions and Palestinian Christians, stated clearly that they "do not mean to minimize the suffering of Muslims and Jews." The letter ended by imploring the President to assist all Muslims, Jews, and Christians in the Holy Land, stating, "your help is needed as a force for peacemaking that builds bridges to a new and hopeful future."
Bishop Griswold summarized, "We believe that our institutions provide services that are essential to bringing hope to people in need and thus to our shared goal of two states, with secure borders, and able to live in peace, one with the other."