Praying for justice won’t end the occupation

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Now fifty years into the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem, tensions are once again running high. Over the last week numbers of Palestinians and Israelis have been murdered, with hundreds of Palestinians injured.

Though the dispute has focused on Al Aqsa Mosque and its immediate surroundings, the mosque and Israel’s blocking access to prayer is only part of the problem. Everyone knows the issue is the occupation, not prayer.

As the casualties mount, Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank grows stronger. This, as Israel’s stranglehold on Gaza, with the assistance of Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, tightens. Electricity to Gazans is now down to about two hours a day. Like prayer at Al Aqsa, electricity is but a symptom of the larger occupation issue.

Over the last decades, churches around the world have been mobilizing to support Palestinians. Though church concerns are often expressed in relation to the small minority of Palestinian Christians, the concern for Palestinians of the Islamic faith, the vast majority, is increasing. Yet the limits of church mobilization are evident. Even the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions of different denominations, as important as they are, for the most part should be seen as symbolic actions rather a real political engagement with Israel’s occupation. When the situation is dire, as it is for Palestinians, material political and economic support are of the essence.

So what do we find now as the Jerusalem situation continues to unravel? The international representative body of the Protestant churches, the World Council of Churches, issued a pastoral letter to the heads of the churches in Jerusalem on the Al Aqsa/Jerusalem situation. The letter is woefully inadequate, even, in my view, scandalous. Read below:

Dear Heads of Churches in Jerusalem

My heart and my prayers are with you and your churches these days, and with all the peoples of faith in Jerusalem and the Holy Land.

We are calling for churches around the world to pray for you these days and for a just peace for Jerusalem. We are sure that churches around the world are following you with great sympathy and with great determination that, together, we will change this situation.

Your journey in your homeland on this pilgrimage of justice and peace has been long and arduous, but you are not alone. We have been monitoring the situation in Jerusalem with deep sorrow and grave concern recognizing that violence is spiriting conflict on a contentious site for both Jews and Muslims. As a worldwide fellowship of churches, we are urging the world church body and all people of good will to unite in prayer for a just and peaceful solution in Jerusalem.

We pray and plead for both sides in this precarious situation to talk with one another and arrive at a bone fide solution for access to the Holy Site so that people of faith may worship peacefully. This is the only way forward to coexistence and the violence to cease.

Through this letter, we reaffirm our commitment to walk together with you, by endorsing your statement from 19 July, and reiterating an urgent plea for peace and dialogue between Israeli authorities and Palestinians.

The WCC is working closely with you in Jerusalem and in the wider area of the Holy Land.

Let us all be inspired and guided by the words of Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, where we learn the essentiality to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19).

We are in solidarity with you as you continue to plea for dialogue and open access to areas free from electronic gates infringing on the rights to worship at Holy Sites.

We stand in solidarity with Muslims, Jews and Christians, and we pray that justice and peace will prevail, not only this week but in the weeks, months and years to come.

Yours in Christ,

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit General Secretary
World Council of Churches

The WCC letter features typical church language: being with the suffering in prayer, quoting from scripture, assuring the aggrieved that they are not alone, encouraging peace and dialogue, and calling for believers of all faiths to have access to their holy sites for prayer. Finally, the WCC assures the churches in Jerusalem that they are monitoring the “situation.”

Not once in this pastoral letter is occupation mentioned, nor Israel as the occupier. Though the larger “situation” is alluded to and reference to recent statements of the churches in Jerusalem is made, the letter lacks specifics and, worse, no plan of action besides prayer and dialogue.

Church documents often read like this, to be sure, but what is solidarity if it is mostly, or in reality, only in prayer? Though to establish their Christian credibility no doubt prayers have to be offered and encouraged, do the church officials who wrote this letter seriously believe that prayer and dialogue is the vehicle for justice in Palestine? Rather, the WCC is on record here urging a reestablishment of the status quo at Al Aqsa and in Jerusalem, a status quo that affirms Israeli occupation.

The question before the churches and the world is the reckoning needed to end Israel’s occupation. Yet, the churches lack the will to speak and act politically in an efficacious way to accomplish what is needed.

Are the churches too weak to help end the occupation? Are the churches afraid to speak forthrightly, to move beyond monitoring the “situation” to outright and defiant opposition to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people? Is prayer a cover for the churches weakness and lack of will?

The WCC pastoral letter is yet another missed opportunity to stand forthrightly and courageously for Palestinians. How many more missed opportunities will there be before the WCC and the churches across the globe commit themselves to what would be an interfaith act of civil disobedience?

Reluctantly, after more than fifty years of Israeli occupation, the question must be asked: Does the World Council of Churches want Israel’s occupation of Palestine to end?

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