While Evangelical Christians are capturing headlines for their fervent support of Israel, going virtually unnoticed is how the nation’s “mainline” Protestants have been strongly advocating an anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian position during the current Middle East crisis.
“As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has worsened, the divide between the Jewish people and many [mainline] Christian leaders has grown, and effective Jewish-Christian communication on the Middle East has decreased,” Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, writes in a new report called “Church Attitudes Towards the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
“Many churches in the United States have taken official positions that are openly pro-Palestinian, paying insufficient attention to legitimate Israeli rights and interests,” he states.
The plight of Palestinian Christians, some of whom feel threatened under the Islamic-majority Palestinian Authority, and are also viewed as a suspicious minority by Israel, is also being ignored by the Christian establishment groups, he said.
But now, the Anti-Defamation League is joining with two grass-roots pro-Israel Christian organizations — one in Israel and one in the U.S. — in the first organized interfaith effort to counter the mainline Christian establishment’s pro-Palestinian advocacy.
The new dialogue group, called “Faith and Freedom: The International Christian-Jewish Association on the Middle East,” will promote Israel advocacy within the Christian community and defend the freedom, rights and interests of Jews and Christians in the region, said Korn, who will serve as co-president.
The two Christian groups are the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Jerusalem and The National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel, based in Novi, Michigan.
“Faith and Freedom is necessary due to the lack of mainline Christian-Jewish dialogue groups dealing with present-day Middle East reality, theologically,” Rev. Petra Heldt, executive secretary of the fraternity, told The Jewish Week via e-mail Tuesday.
“[We] will help to foster a new awareness in the U.S. and Europe regarding the situation of Christians and Jews in the Middle East. Academics as well as pastors and lay people will be addressed with facts which are determined more by accuracy and less by doctrine.”
David Blewett, director of the NCLCI, told The Jewish Week that Faith and Freedom is necessary to counter the propaganda being fed to American Protestant leaders by pro-Palestinian Authority Christian clerics about the plight of Palestinian Christians in the Middle East.
“We hope to be an international group that can begin to counter in a very loud way the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel news coming out of the Middle East from the churches, and give more of a united Christian voice for Israel.”
For example, they cited the National Council of Churches, a national umbrella group representing 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox Christian denominations.
In April 2002, following a spate of suicide bombings against Israelis including the horrific “Passover massacre,” the NCC declared: “We condemn equally and unequivocally both the suicide bombings and Palestinian violence against Israeli society and the violence of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.”
Last July the NCC called for Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to return sacred Armenian Church property.
But the group was mute when Joseph’s Tomb was destroyed two years ago, and while sacred Jewish Temple Mount artifacts were being destroyed by the Muslim religious authorities.
An NCC official could find no condemnation of those incidents.
“The NCC primarily blames the Israelis for the Middle East conflict,” the ADL report states, also charging Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches with a pro-Palestinian bias.
“The World Council of Churches takes an extremely partisan approach to the Arab-Israel conflict,” the report says. “The root of the entire crisis is repeatedly attributed to the ‘illegal occupation of Palestine.’ ”
Interfaith leaders were upbeat about the new initiative.
“I think this is extremely important,” said veteran interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin.
“It’s really needed now since September 2000 when the second intifada began to balance and maybe cancel out the ugly anti-Israel statements coming out of the American church leaders, particularly within the liberal Protestant establishment.”
He said the new group will “bolster our friends and hopefully bring in other people who may feel that way but have had no outlet and no way to express support for Israel in its grave hour.”
Korn noted that mainline Protestant churches have a long history of working with Palestinian communities, having done social, medical and missionary work in Bethlehem and Ramallah since the end of the 19th century.
But he said the bias apparently lies not in the pews, but with the leadership of the Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Lutheran churches.
“There is significant individual understanding for Israel among many mainline Christians around the world,” he explains, “yet this supportive commitment is frequently muted by official church statements and policies unsympathetic to Israel in the current situation.”
He noted that the Protestant denominations outnumber Evangelicals nearly 2-to-1 (about 60 million versus about 30 million).
Rev. Heldt said the key issues for the group are to secure the future of the land and state of Israel for Jews and Christians, unfair media coverage, and publicizing the problems of Jews and Christians, who are considered “Dhimmis,” minority residents denied equal political and religious rights.
She insisted that Faith And Freedom will differ from established Jewish-Christian dialogue groups because it will not deal with traditional interfaith issues, such as debating the meaning of salvation and covenant, but instead focus on modern political issues.
Taking a shot at the Evangelicals, she said Faith and Freedom “differs from those who support Israel politically due to messianic end-time notions.”
She said the theologians important to Faith and Freedom philosophy are liberal thinkers like James Parkes, Robert Everett, Reinhold Niebuhr and Roy Eckardt.
Blewett, whose group was founded in 1978 and has about 1,200 members, said one of the biggest problems is that leading Christian bishops in Israel are Palestinian, involved in local politics, and spread news that is “really quite adamantly anti-Israel.
“Their information is not accurate,” he said. “When that’s all [American Christian leaders] hear, they get into the mindset that ‘Israel is the oppressor, why listen to their side.’
“To put it bluntly, Israel is the best thing for Palestinian Christians,” he said. “A lot of them know it, but can’t say it because they’ll be seen as collaborators.”
NCC interfaith relations director Jay Rock could not be reached for comment. His voice message said he was attending an international conference of Christians and Muslims.
Faith and Freedom plans to sponsor a Web site, missions to Israel, speaking tours, and scholarly conferences on historical, theological and political aspects of Jewish and Christian life.