Another North American church denomination sees apartheid in Israel

Pointing to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Palestine/Israel, leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada issued a Pastoral Letter Wednesday, writing, “Israeli policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinians—Christians and Muslims alike—are consistent with the international definition of the crime of apartheid.”

“The continuing occupation, denial of rights, and injustice that Palestinians endure is not consistent with our understanding of God’s vision for justice for all people, and therefore is sin,” the letter reads. 

Titled Compelled to Witness, the letter describes “an especially aggressive period of violations of international law and conventions vis-à-vis Palestinian rights. Recent acceleration of actions and circumstances has led to the deterioration of hope for a just peace in Israel/Palestine.” 

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The letter points to US recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, de facto annexation of land and property through the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, demolitions of Palestinian homes and evictions, increasing settler violence toward Palestinians, the recent designation of Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations as “terrorist” organizations, Israel’s passage of its Nation State Law clearly elevating the rights of its Jewish citizens over its Arab citizens, and more.

“As leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ),” the letter continues, “we must not be silent in the face of changes on the ground and further entrenched systemic factors… We are compelled to acknowledge and amplify the voices of our partners—in Israel/Palestine and around the world—and to witness to what we know and see.”

Disciples’ mission partners—more than a dozen in Israel and Palestine that the church supports both with appointed mission workers and its dollars—include the Israeli Jewish human rights organization B’Tselem, the most inclusive ecumenical, nonviolent Palestinian Christian organization Kairos Palestine, Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center (Jerusalem), the Middle East Council of Churches, the Diyar Consortium, both the YWCA of Palestine and the East Jerusalem YMCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

The denomination—commonly referred to as Disciples—sent its first missionaries to Palestine in 1849, a medical doctor and his wife. Since 1973, the church has taken clear positions in support of a just peace between Palestinians and Israelis. “The places of Israel and Palestine are dear to us as Christians,” the letter explains, “because of our Biblical history centered there, because of the people (siblings in Christ, as well as Jews and Muslims) who are suffering there, and because of the call we accept to seek justice and pursue peace.”

COVID-cancelled biennial General Assemblies, where policies of the church are established, and urgent pleas from the denomination’s mission partners in Palestine and Israel moved the church’s leaders to pen the letter. Authorized by the church’s constitution, The Design, the Pastoral Letter speaks both to members of the church and for the church in ecumenical settings.

While the Pastoral Letter may come as a surprise to some, members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with congregations in both the US and Canada, have long been committed to issues of social justice and active in movements for civil rights and anti-racism in both countries. 

Peter Makari is the Executive of Middle East and Europe for Global Ministries, the combined witness of the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ. In a phone interview, Makari said, “The church is called to speak from a moral and theological perspective, and this letter addresses ongoing injustice against Palestinians that our partners have been living for too long.”

Among eight “commitments” described in the letter, leaders condemn antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry, draw a distinction between antisemitic discourse and legitimate criticism of the State of Israel’s laws and actions, and support economic measures to hold countries and companies accountable to standards of human rights and national and international laws.

The letter specifically charges, “The US should apply such laws and standards consistently by conditioning its immense military aid to Israel upon Israel’s compliance” with the US Foreign Assistance Act, the Arms Export Control Act, and the “Leahy Laws” which are designed to prevent the use of US military aid in actions that violate human rights. 

Regarding the letter’s call for accountability, Makari observed how international law and human rights conventions are applied inconsistently. “Robust opposition to Russian occupation of the Ukraine is an example,” he said, “where Israel has occupied Palestinian lands and people for decades. This Pastoral Letter is a call to apply those principles as they were intended.”

“We reject any theology or use of [Christian] scripture to justify any system of discrimination, oppression, violation of any person’s dignity, or exclusivist claim on land, including Christian Zionism.”

– From the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Pastoral Letter “Compelled to Witness”

In another clearly expressed position, Disciples leaders write, “We reject any theology or use of [Christian] scripture to justify any system of discrimination, oppression, violation of any person’s dignity, or exclusivist claim on land, including Christian Zionism.” Christian Zionism is an interpretation of the Bible focused the gathering of Jews in Israel as a key to “the end-times,” an understanding that has privileged Jews in Israel at the expense of Palestinian Christians a well as their Muslim neighbors. 

“Practically speaking,” said Terri Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Disciples, “our Pastoral Letter ensures that the Disciples and the United Church of Christ are walking together as Global Ministries, the common witness of the Christian Church and the United Church of Christ.” 

At its General Synod last year, the United Church of Christ became the first US denomination to officially describe Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians as “apartheid” and to name it a sin. After spirited debate, the resolution passed by a vote of 462 to 78, with 18 abstentions. 

Anticipating questions—and perhaps criticism—a FAQ document was released at the same time as the Pastoral Letter. To the query, “Is the church taking sides?”, the document responds, “In its global work, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) works with and through partners, both Palestinian and Israeli. Palestinian Christians are long-term partners, and we respond to the issues they face. While acknowledging the legitimacy of the State of Israel and denouncing violent acts by both Palestinians and Israelis, we name the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands—including the continuing growth of settlements—as a major obstacle to peace in the region.”

“Is religion the root cause of this conflict?” the FAQ asks, offering this response: “Religion has never been the main motivation in this conflict, even taking into account the modern surge in political religious movements inside both Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Religion may inflame tensions that already exist, but the conflict and the military occupation are about land, security and self-determination, not about religion.”

“Should the church be involved in politics?” The FAQ says, “The prophets got involved with the justice issues of their time, and Jesus did likewise. God calls us to end conflict and share creation, to seek justice and love kindness. These are holy and faithful words!”

The Pastoral Letter is signed by the three church officers authorized to speak on behalf of the Disciples: the denomination’s General Minister and President the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens, the Rev. LaMarco Cable, President of the Division of Overseas Ministries, and the Rev. Sheila Spencer, Interim President of the Disciples Home Missions.

Acknowledging that the conflict seems as distant as ever and that advocacy for a particular solution may not be effective, Disciples leaders express the church’s support for “a rights-based approach… based on principles of peace and justice, human rights and international law.”

“We pray for the day when pain and sorrow are relieved, when peace and justice prevail for Palestinians and for Israelis,” the letter ends. “We yearn for the time when all parts of the body are healed and restored. And we will work for this vision, which is eminently consistent with our understanding of the Gospel message, to be realized.”

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