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Rifts Over Holy Land Widen

Some Christian leaders increase their criticism of Israel's response to Palestinian unrest, angering many in U.S. Jewish community.


Ever since Israel won the 1967 Mideast war and expanded its borders, it has faced calls from some Christian churches to cede back land to the displaced Palestinians.

But 10 months of continuing violence in the Holy Land are further raising tensions between Jewish and mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders in the United States.

As deaths mount and the Mideast peace process grinds to a near-halt, these churches are stepping up criticism of Israeli policy and military tactics. The Christian leaders have been careful to condemn violence by Palestinians too, but Jewish leaders say the criticism has been unbalanced, falling too heavily on Israel.

At least 492 Palestinians, 129 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation began in September after peace talks stalled. Persistent Palestinian attacks on Israel have been met with Israeli government crackdowns.

In the last several months, the Geneva-based World Council of Churches has accused Israel of a "pattern of discrimination, routine humiliation, segregation and exclusion" of Palestinians, and the "disproportionate use of military force."

Meanwhile, a delegation of ranking mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox leaders in the United States met privately with Secretary of State Colin Powell last month and urged the Bush administration to hold up the sale of attack helicopters and jet fighters to Israel. They also asked Powell to consider economic pressure to force Israel to halt the building and expansion of Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank and Gaza areas.

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops recently issued what was seen by Jewish leaders as an even-handed appeal for peace. The bishops declared that Palestinians "rightly insist" on an end to Israel's 30-year "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza, while Israelis "rightly see the failure of Palestinians to demonstrate full respect for Israel's right to exist and flourish within secure borders."

Reform Rabbis Criticize Settlements

Meanwhile, Reform rabbis in the United States--long wary of Israel's expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza--last month declared at their national convention in Monterey that the settlements "erect serious impediments to peace." The rabbis also called on the Palestinian Authority to denounce the use of force.

The tensions have "heightened and sharpened," said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor of the American Jewish Committee.

The Rev. John L. McCullough, executive director of Church World Service and a member of the delegation that visited Powell, agreed. The often-shocking violence in the Middle East has put "some real strain" on interfaith relations, he said.

The American Jewish Committee called the Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestant criticism a "deep disappointment." The committee called the presentation, underscored in a letter the delegation presented to Powell, "an unbalanced perspective on the conflict."

Rabbi David Rosen, director of international interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, charged that Christians visiting Powell made "no condemnation . . . of the violent abuse of and perversion of religion contained in the encouragement and blessing of suicide terrorism by extremist Islamic leaders."

This week, the Christians wrote back, saying they had "consistently condemned" violence by both sides. In a letter to Rosen, the Rev. Canon Brian J. Grieves of the Episcopal Church also disputed Rosen's view that Israel has reacted to Palestinian provocation with "remarkable and perhaps unparalleled restraint."

Grieves, who joined a June 6 protest at the United Nations against Israeli occupation and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, told Rosen, "It has also been clear that Israel's capability and willingness to punish Palestinian acts have been disproportionate and excessive."

Mainline Protestants also say they cannot ignore the plight of Palestinian Christians, many of whom are emigrating from the land of Jesus' birth because of violence and economic hardships.

Televangelist Denounces Arafat

Israel is not without support among American Christians, particularly evangelicals. This month while on a visit to Israel, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson strongly defended Israeli military attacks on suspected terrorists and sharply criticized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

"He no longer should be considered a legitimate partner for Israel," Robertson said. "It is incumbent on [Palestinians] to choose a leader who is responsible and not dedicated to terror."

The Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestant leaders who wrote to Powell represent about 25 million U.S. members. They included leaders of the United Methodist, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox, African Methodist Episcopal, American Baptist, Evangelical Lutheran and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches.

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