Church Fires Back at Congress

Posted September 24, 2004 at 5:27pm

The Presbyterian Church USA fired back Friday at critics on Capitol Hill who have attacked its policies on Israel, suggesting that the punitive action it has taken against the Jewish state stems in part from the failure by Congress to act as “an ally or a balanced arbiter” for those seeking peace in the region.

“Perhaps if the U.S. Congress had been more forthright in seeking a just solution for Israel and Palestine, it would not have been necessary for our General Assembly to take this further action to achieve our long-term commitment for peace and well-being for both Israelis and Palestinians,” the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a top church official, wrote in a stern letter to lawmakers.

The measures to which Kirkpatrick alluded included two resolutions approved by delegates to the church’s annual meeting in July. They called for the “phased, selective” divestment in companies that do business with Israel and condemned a security fence that Israel continues to build along the West Bank.

“There has been nothing done by Congress to pressure Israel to adhere to international law,” Kirkpatrick added, citing international demands that Israel tear down the barrier, among other things. “Rather, Israel has been encouraged by Congress to violate international law.”

Kirkpatrick asked for a “constructive dialogue” to help the two sides resolve their differences.

The church’s letter raises the temperature on an unusual controversy that pits the mainstream Protestant denomination against lawmakers who charge that the church’s meddling threatens the survival of the Jewish state.

Those concerns were laid out in a recent letter to Kirkpatrick from a bipartisan — and ecumenical — group of 14 House Members, led by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.). In it, the lawmakers said the resolutions passed by the church essentially punished Israel for trying to defend itself from a terrorist onslaught.

“Rather than contributing to peace, [the church’s] approach will only provide encouragement for those that seek to de-legitimize the very existence of the Jewish state,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a brief interview, Berman said he has not seen Kirkpatrick’s letter, which was sent Friday, but would be “happy to have a dialogue” with the Presbyterians regarding their policies on Israel. He added that he would reserve comment on the letter’s substance until he has a chance to look at it.

“I want to read the letter carefully,” Berman said.

Catherine Gordon, who manages international issues for the Presbyterians from their Washington office, said it is both appropriate and customary for mainstream churches to stake out policies in the foreign affairs arena.

“We all have a social policy,” Gordon said. “And we all work toward the Biblical mandate of justice and peace.”

Gordon said that Kirkpatrick was seeking to meet with lawmakers in order to “educate” them about “what’s really happening on the ground” in the showdown between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Gordon alleged that Members of Congress were not getting the full story about the situation in the region because Members have been “intimidated” by “powerful lobbies” that regard criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic. Noting that modern-day Israel emerged out of the persecution of the Jews in the Holocaust, she added, “It’s hard to see the victims of the victims.”

Among pro-Israel groups, there exists the strong concern that the Presbyterian church is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” that presages a sequence of similar actions by other mainstream Christian denominations.

Among the mainstream denominations that are believed to be considering measures such as those taken by the Presbyterians are the Episcopalian Church and the United Church of Christ.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy will release a report today in Washington alleging that “human rights” advocacy among several mainstream churches — organized collectively under the U.S. National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches — has focused disproportionately on Israel, while altogether ignoring bad actors such as China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia. (Only the United States ranked close to Israel as a target for condemnation, according to the report.)

In a release from the group, which bills itself as a “reformist” alliance inside mainstream Protestantism, a co-author of the report said, “I hope that the leaders in my denomination [the Presbyterian Church USA] will see this situation as more than a public relations problem with an external group [the Jewish community] that needs to be mollified. I hope that they will take this opportunity for some serious introspection, asking whether we Presbyterians have been faithful to our own Christian commitment to value equally the human rights of all peoples.”