Posted on Sat, May. 25, 2002

Middle East Christians support Palestinian state, religious leader says

By HELEN T. GRAY, The Kansas City Star

            Christians in the Middle East say a Palestinian state is the only way for peace in the region, the head of a major ecumenical organization said in Kansas City recently.

            "Every Christian we talked to supported a Palestinian state," said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, who led an ecumenical delegation of church leaders to the region last month. "They believe the only way for peace is for Israel to pull back from the West Bank and Gaza."

            Edgar gave the commencement address last weekend at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan., and spoke to faculty and staff members about his trip. The seminary also awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree to him.

            Edgar has led the council that represents 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox communions for two years. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, he is a former president of Claremont Theological School in Claremont, Calif., and a former six-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania.

            The delegation met with community and political leaders in Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel and religious leaders of the Orthodox, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish groups.

            "I came back with five words that describe the situation," Edgar said. "The first is `occupation.' I have been going to the Middle East since 1977, and this is the first time that I really felt the kind of occupation that the French felt during World War II.

            "The second word is `resistance.' Everyone we talked to was opposed to suicide bombing. But every Christian and every Palestinian we talked to understood the hopelessness that these suicide bombers were feeling. The third word is `rage.' Clearly there is rage on both sides. I never saw the kind of destruction and the smell of death that I witnessed in Jenin (on the West Bank)...rage in the eyes of the Israeli soldiers, who had lost some of their soldiers, and the victims of that tragedy.

            "The Israelis had gone door to door allegedly seeking terrorists, completely demolishing homes, damaging others, ripped up the infrastructure of the city and leaving the refugee camp in ruins."

            The fourth word, Edgar said, is "fear." Although they have helicopters, planes and weapons, the Israelis are feeling fear and insecurity. Edgar said he had not seen that before in Israel.

            The final word is "complicity." The United States has been one-sided in its approach with the Israelis against the Palestinians, Edgar said.

            Christians in the United States are more divided than those in the Mideast, he said, with a right wing strongly supporting Israel and moderates supporting a more balanced policy.

            Edgar does not think Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat can control the more radical elements among the Palestinians. Edgar joins Palestinian Christians who are proposing nonviolent resistance for bringing about peace.

            "The tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience of Dr. King and Gandhi are probably more powerful than the tactics of violence," he said. "This would bring about more receptivity on the part of more moderate Israelis to move toward the peace table."

            He attributes much of the current violence to the 1993 Oslo accords, signed by Arafat and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, having not been implemented. The agreement would have established a Palestinian state and strengthened Palestinian neighborhoods, he said.

            Although the current situation looks bleak, Edgar said he saw glimpses of hope.

            "First, this is the first time in my memory that all the Arab nations supported a peace initiative -- put forth by the Saudis -- which includes Israel's right to exist. The second sliver of hope is that the Bush administration for the first time has acknowledged that for peace to occur, there has to be a Palestinian state.

            "And third is the new leadership in Syria and Jordan. They both understand Western values and ideas because they were both trained in England and have traveled extensively in the U.S. Both believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims can live together. In Lebanon particularly and parts of Syria, there are already examples of that happening." 


To reach Helen T. Gray, religion editor, call (816) 234-4446 or send e-mail to: hgray@kcstar.com.