Palm Sunday is usually a joyful occasion in the Christian year. The church may be decked with tree branches as the worshipers mimic the jubilation of the crowds that greeted the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem two millennia ago.
So a certain Jerusalem congregation was surprised to hear that the theme of their prayers would be something else this year: "ending the occupation." Why? Because Palm Sunday fell on March 24 and "all the churches in Palestine and Israel pray for the end of the occupation on the twenty-fourth of every month." If Easter Sunday had fallen on March 24, as happens sometimes, presumably "ending the occupation" would have been the theme of the day, rather than the Resurrection.
Asking around revealed that it was far from true that "all the churches in Palestine and Israel" were involved in this scheme. Other churches were unaware of it. One would imagine that the Anglican cathedral, the erstwhile rostrum of Naim Ateek, would be the first to participate. But no, there had been a rousing celebration with the presence of an opera singer, but no focus on "the occupation." As for Ateek, he was pensioned off long ago and the terms of the pension excluded interventions in church affairs.
An Internet search revealed that the scheme emanated from the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and targeted mainly Lutheran churches worldwide. For instance, on March 14 last National Bishop Susan C. Johnson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) issued an epistle with the following instructions: "I am writing today to invite you to pray for peace in the Middle East on the 24th of each month... This vigil was initiated by ACT Alliance, of which Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR) is a member... This invitation to prayer has come to the ELCIC through our membership in The Lutheran World Federation..."
More specifically, the Jerusalem office of the LWF is the putative source. A page on its website is devoted to the said prayer vigil. It begins: "The Lutheran World Federation Jerusalem Program invites you to join with brothers and sisters around the world in praying for peace on the 24th of every month. On Christmas Eve 2012, the ACT Palestine Forum (APF) launched the Ecumenical Prayer Vigil for Peace in the Middle East. This global movement will continue until the Israeli occupation is dismantled, violence in the Middle East ends, and all can celebrate a just and lasting negotiated resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." There follow detailed instructions on how to "sign up" and participate.
Christmas Eve, of course, falls on December 24. Yet both the ELCIC and the aforementioned Jerusalem congregation seem to have heard about it only in March. Maybe this was some obscure pro-Palestinian scheme that was getting nowhere for months until the LWF decided to give it a push. If so, Lutherans worldwide will be expected to turn their future Christmases into feasts of "ending the occupation." Cribs and nativity plays will be out, mock Israeli checkpoints and displays of brutal soldiers will be in. Little boys who love toy guns will be easily persuaded to bring them along and use them to beat other congregants.
Now comes the $64 question. What is meant here by "ending the occupation"? When Palestinians talk of "ending he occupation," one always has to verify what "occupation" they mean: they commonly refer to the State of Israel itself, in any borders, as "occupied Palestine."
The notorious Kairos Palestine Document (KPD), for instance, is notably coy on this point, as was pointed out by various observers. An example is an article by Michael Volkmann (September 2010), writing as the pastor responsible for Christian-Jewish dialogue in the Protestant Church of Württemberg. As Volkmann says, "the two-state solution is not a theme for the authors" of the KPD; rather they advocate "the dissolution of the Jewish state instead of a two-state solution" ("Auflösung des jüdischen Staates statt Zweistaatenlösung... die Zweistaatenlösung für die Autoren kein Thema").
The following paragraph of the KPD makes that intention evident: "Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination and exclusion, preferring one citizen over another. We appeal to both religious Jews and Muslims: let the state be a state for all its citizens, with a vision constructed on respect for religion but also equality, justice, liberty and respect for pluralism and not on domination by a religion or a numerical majority."
To quote from my own earlier analysis of the KPD (April 2010): "A naïve reader will not notice here what a more attentive reading reveals: the authors want to see a single state embracing Muslims, Jews and Christians alike. Indeed, nowhere in the document does the term 'two states' occur. Likewise, the term 'occupation' is freely used, but without a clear statement of what areas are considered to be 'occupied.' Thus the document delivers different messages to different audiences. Well-intentioned but unwary sympathizers can imagine that the authors subscribe to 'two states for two peoples,' but insiders can be sure that the ultimate aim is the old one of a unitary Palestine."
This is why I now ask: Is the Lutheran World Federation praying for Israel to disappear? Note that I do not ask whether the LWF wants Israel to disappear; that is another question. What has to be clarified, first of all, is whether the LWF is promoting a prayer whose authors understand it to imply the disappearance of Israel.
To seek some clarification, let us follow the link provided by the LWF: the ACT Palestine Forum (APF). The first thing to be noticed is that this is certainly not an initiative of "all the churches in Palestine and Israel." The List of Participants mentions several foreign countries, but only two Participants under "Israel" and nine under "Palestine"; the latter seem to be predominantly Lutheran or offshoots of the World Council of Churches. Indeed, the foreign Participants fall mainly into these two categories. Yet Germany, the country with the largest Lutheran population, is not listed at all.
As to what they are praying for, the relevant page offers only the ambiguous statement quoted by the LWF: "This global ecumenical prayer vigil begins on 24 December 2012 and will continue across the globe, on the 24th of every month, until the Israeli occupation is dismantled, violence in the Middle East ends, and all can celebrate a just and lasting negotiated resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." Which Israeli occupation, that of 1967 or that of 1948? You are left to guess. A "just and lasting resolution" that leaves the State of Israel in existence? Again, your guess. The KPD is included among the Advocacy Resources of the site. A hint?
Another question is: Who was the initiator of the scheme? Among various possibilities, two curious coincidences stand out. On the one hand, the current LWF President (since 2010) is Bishop Munib Younan of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. His church in Jerusalem is given as a Participant in the scheme. Moreover, Younan was originally listed among the authors of the KPD, but asked for his name to be removed from it. Unfortunately for him, although the dedicated Kairos Palestine website deleted his name, there are still countless early Internet reports that continue to mention his authorship. Lest anyone claim that they are Zionist forgeries, we can give an example from an unquestionably pro-Palestinian website. In case it, too, gets deleted, here is another example. And there are more, too many for them all to vanish.
The other coincidence is that the LWF Jerusalem Program Senior Staff is headed by Rev. Mark Brown. Back in 1990, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) issued a "'prayer offensive' on behalf of the Palestinian people, to take place from Palm Sunday, April 8, to the Feast of Pentecost on June 3," as the JTA records. In those days, Brown was living in Jerusalem as a human rights advocate with connections to the MECC.
The "prayer offensive" consisted of a prayer "from Jerusalem," which the MECC sent to churches throughout the region, requesting that it be read in all churches on Palm Sunday. The prayer, like the later KPD, placed blame on Israel alone for the conflict. Who truly composed the prayer, and whether it really came from Jerusalem or from Geneva, never came to light.
The 1990 prayer scheme was something of a flop. The Orthodox churches took the line that their Palm Sunday worship had been fixed centuries ago and no further prayer could be added. The prayer was read, however, by the then Latin Patriarch, Michel Sabbah, during the annual Palm Sunday procession from Bethany to Jerusalem. Later on, but as a private person after his retirement, Sabbah became one of the authors and most vigorous proponents of the KPD. Incidentally, his Wikipedia biography is another place where Younan is mentioned as a co-author.
In those days, the Jerusalem congregation that was mentioned at the outset was led by a pastor who smartly avoided the issue by composing an alternative prayer of his own, a prayer that did not obviously side with either Palestinians or Israelis. He later went on to greater things in his home country. His current successor, amiable and less ambitious, was an easier target.
The MECC at that time was remarkable for two things. A great deal of its budget, as much as 40%, was spent on the Palestinian issue and its administration was not known for effectiveness. I remember meeting a lady who had come all the way from Japan with a large donation for the MECC. After hanging around in Cyprus for several days, trying to get an appointment with the relevant person in the MECC headquarters, she gave up and went on to Jerusalem. Here she distributed the money among good causes of her own choosing. Not surprisingly, the MECC later fell somewhat into disarray and underwent various restructurings (as in 2003 and 2011).
To underline the delicacy of the issues, another piece of trickery was one I happened to witness. On March 11, 1997, all the primates of the worldwide Anglican Communion participated in a worship service in Jerusalem at the beginning of a week-long meeting. Naim Ateek took the opportunity to deliver a long prayer in which he asked for the "end of the occupation" and the creation of the Palestinian state. His idea of the "end of the occupation" is well-known: the absorption of Israel into a unitary Palestinian state or a regional federation with an Arab majority. Since he spoke in Arabic, all of the visiting primates answered "Amen" without knowing what they were assenting to. So Ateek scored a minor victory on earth, though his prayer drew no response from Heaven.
Given the history, the LWF would be advised to think again about its prayer vigil. First of all, it should give clear instructions about what kind of prayer is acceptable. In particular, it should emphasize that the right of existence of the State of Israel and the wellbeing of its citizens should always be made explicit. That includes a ban on praying for the "right of return" of Palestinian refugees, which is just a euphemism for absorbing Israel into an Arab-majority state.
Second, the LWF should recommend changing the monthly date when the twenty-fourth coincides with a Christian festival or a Sunday. It is intolerable that every Christmas, and from time to time at other events in the Christian festival year, the LWF makes participation in worship conditional upon the acceptance of a political opinion. Congregants who disagree can only walk out or stay away. No Christian should face such a choice on a Sunday, let alone at Christmas.
Under those two conditions, the LWF's prayer vigil might become acceptable, although its usefulness is another matter.