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  • The next Presiding Bishop of the ELCA would do well to forget the obsession with pro-Palestinian activism and pay more attention to the real wishes of the faithful. Ditto for the other churches whose members have signed the Declaration.

Protestants from three continents met in Jerusalem during November 5-8, 2012, to initiate a Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East (PCIME). They subsequently issued a Jerusalem Declaration calling upon their churches to refrain from one-sided censure of Israel and to pay greater attention to the current miseries of Christians in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Iraq.

These were not bishops and archbishops but pastors and well educated laity. For years, many of them had been making such calls, but each as an individual within a specific Protestant denomination in a particular country. New was that for the first time they were sitting around the same table.

The Consultation included informative briefings and field trips, as well as meetings with the two most influential local Christians, the Greek Patriarch and the Franciscan Custos. But the decisive event was the long session in which each of them reported on how his or her church dealt with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Amazingly, despite the variety of denominations and countries, all had a similar story to tell.

Typically, their church would announce a "period of consultation" leading up to some meeting or assembly at which a statement on the conflict would be discussed. Months of silence would follow. Then, shortly before the decisive meeting, suddenly some committee of church bureaucrats would publish the text of the proposed statement, replete with the clichés of Palestinian propaganda. Anyone better informed would be left with little opportunity to protest against this nonsense.

Sometimes forces could hastily be mustered to reduce the bias of the proposed statement. An example of this is the pitiful drama that replays itself every two years in the American Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). But often the prearranged decision would be steamrollered through, against all reason.

The roots of this phenomenon are easily identifiable: Protestant bureaucrats everywhere have the same two sources of disinformation on the matter. One is the miniscule Palestinian Protestant churches (over 95% of the Christian population there is Orthodox or Catholic). The other is their fellow bureaucrats in the secretariat of the World Council of Churches (WCC), who for years have invested large resources in promoting Palestinian aspirations.

The WCC's so-called "Ecumenical Accompanier Program in Palestine and Israel" (EAPPI), for instance, has drilled hundreds of Western Protestant Christians in the Palestinian worldview. The program involves three months of on-the-spot training in Palestinian locations, followed by three months in which the participants go around propagandizing in their home churches. And the "Israel" part of the program? Some of the participants meet vociferously pro-Palestinian Jews.

The Jerusalem Consultation took place in the shadow of three events. 1) The Synod of the Church of England had endorsed the EAPPI. 2) For weeks, Israel was the victim of an increasing hail of rockets from Gaza aimed at its civilian population; a million citizens were rushing to bomb shelters many times a day. 3) A joint letter had just been sent to Congress by fifteen leading US Protestant church dignitaries, in which they challenged the US commitment to aiding Israel's military defenses. The Fifteen included the "Stated Clerk" of the PCUSA and the Presiding Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and of the United Methodist Church.

Israel's missile defense system, Iron Dome, relies heavily on that US military aid; so the Fifteen were undermining Israel's ability to defend itself precisely when Hamas and its like were indulging their fantasy of devastating Israel's civilian population. Of course, the letter of the Fifteen included a token reference to "loss of life from rocket attacks from Gaza and past suicide bombings," but it consisted otherwise in a torrent of criticism poured out upon Israel alone.

Moreover, the points of criticism were not new; Israelis have wearily refuted them on many previous occasions. But never mind – the same old deceptive accusations can be recycled whenever hostility to Israel requires them. The letter was a profoundly immoral gesture clothed in moral posturing.

The participants in the Jerusalem Consultation were rightly outraged at this coincidence of events. Nevertheless, their Declaration is remarkably irenic. After recalling how "certain European and North American church officials approach the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as if it were a zero-sum game" and "fall in line with the international campaign that purports to help the Palestinians by delegitimizing Israel," they urged:

Whether this effect is intended or not, such strategies lend encouragement to the forces that have vowed to destroy Israel – forces that launch rockets at Israeli civilians on a daily basis. We fear that this approach is not motivated by Christian love for anyone, but quite the opposite. We ask the zealous promoters of those strategies to examine their consciences in this matter.

They also identified the greater issue ignored by the Fifteen:

We have also come to see the hostility to Israel as part of a larger pattern. The forces that refuse to tolerate the existence of a Jewish state are fiercely intolerant of other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. We have heard the testimony of Coptic Christians from Egypt and Assyrian Christians from Iraq, among others, about their sufferings at the hands of aggressive Islamist movements. By contrast, we were assured by authoritative church leaders in Jerusalem that the Christian citizens of Israel do enjoy equal rights of citizenship and a good standard of living, despite occasional frictions with some of their neighbors.

Let us recall that the Egyptian Army, equipped with US-supplied weapons, has used lethal force against Egyptian Christians who protested at attacks on their churches by Muslim fanatics. The US is also strongly supporting the Syrian rebel forces, despite reports that the latter are persecuting Syrian Christians. These matters, however, have provoked no letter from the Fifteen to Congress; only US support for Israel merits their attention in the Middle East.

The dedicated PCIME website enables others to sign on to the Jerusalem Declaration. Signatures are coming in. The signatories typically comment that they have been waiting for such an initiative for a long time. This should surprise nobody. A Pew Research poll in June 2012 showed that: "About half of white Catholics (52%) sympathize more with Israel, as do 46% of white mainline Protestants; just 12% in each group sympathizes more with the Palestinians."

Thus the Fifteen are also in blatant conflict with the faithful of their own churches on this issue. Indeed, there are other issues where such leaders claim to speak on behalf of their churches, but actually represent only a minority. Without going into details, let it be noted that the result is an increasing alienation between the hierarchy and the rank and file, together with dramatic falls in church membership.

In the ELCA, for example, there was a drop of nearly 213,000 members during 2011 alone. It continued the conspicuous decline that has characterized this church since its Bishop Mark Hanson entered office in 2001. The next Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, due to be elected in 2013, would do well to forget the obsession with pro-Palestinian activism and pay more attention to the real wishes of the faithful. Ditto for the other churches whose members have signed the Declaration.

Discontent with the pro-Palestinian bias of church functionaries has already spawned such groups as Presbyterians for Middle East Peace in the US and Methodist Friends of Israel in the UK. Indeed, a regional chair of the latter group and the patron of Anglican Friends of Israel were at the Consultation and signed the Jerusalem Declaration. PCIME takes those developments a stage further. The seed has been planted of a worldwide community of like-minded Protestants.

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