Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 2006, pages 60-61
Ecumenical Advocacy Days
THOUSANDS OF FAITH-based activists from around the country gathered in Crystal City, Virginia from March 10 to 13 to discuss and lobby for social justice. The Saturday conference program featured in-depth discussion in area- and issue-specific tracks, including Africa, Asia Pacific, Eco-Justice, Global Security and the Nuclear Weapons Danger, Jubilee/Economic Justice, Latin America, USA/Domestic and the Middle East.
The Middle East track, coordinated by Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), featured 10 panel discussions, including “Israeli Political Culture and Dynamics”; “Jerusalem—Core of the Conflict and Key to Peace”; “Palestinian Political and Cultural Dynamics”; “Iraq: What do the Warriors Think?”; “Reconstruction: The Key to True Security”; “In Search of the Rule of Law in Iraq”; and “Iraqis Speak.”
“What’s Really Going on in Iraq” featured Iraq-born Washington, DC businessman and political activist Andy Shallal and Chris Toensing, executive director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), who gave what panel moderator Simone Campbell, national coordinator of NETWORK: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, described as “candid and disturbing accounts” of life in Iraq.
“Educating Local Congregations About Bethlehem and the Wall” featured Charles Lutz, CMEP’s Grassroots Advocacy Project Director in Minnesota, co-author of Christians and a Land Called Holy, and a participant in the International Solidarity Movement’s 2002 Olive Harvest Campaign. Peter Nagle, founder of the Friends of Bethlehem ministry, screened his film, “Sacred Space Denied: Bethlehem and the Wall.”
“Hopes and Fears of Middle East Christians” featured Bishop Vicken Aykazian, representative of the Armenian Orthodox Church on the CMEP board and president-elect of the National Council of Churches. “There will never be peace in the Middle East unless there is a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Bishop Aykazian said. “That conflict is the root of every problem.”
Painting a bleak future for Christians in Palestine, the bishop noted that “in 1926, 56 percent of the population [in historic Palestine] were Christians, now it’s less than 3 percent.” Christian Palestinians have traditionally had greater options for immigration to the West, he explained, and because of this, “you cannot stop [Christian immigration] unless you give them freedom and the guarantee of a safe life.”
This situation, he warned, is also bad for Christians throughout the Arab world, including in Iraq. Bishop Aykazian recalled that, at the recent World Council of Churches summit in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the Iraqi delegation challenged the American delegation on the occupation, stating, “Our life is like hell. What have you done to us?”
Regarding the historic Armenian populations in the Arab world and refugees from the 1915 Armenian Genocide who found asylum in Arab Muslim countries, “where they felt at home,” the bishop cited similar drastically decreasing numbers. “In 1967, there were 45,000 Armenians in Palestine,” he said. “Now we have fewer than 3,000. We had 50,000 in Iraq. Today I don’t think we have more than 5,000.”
In between the day’s tracked portions, denominations met together for lunch. The Presbyterian lunch was coordinated by Elenora Giddings Ivory, Catherine Gordon, and Carolynn B. Race of the Washington office. Rev. Jean Marie Peacock, vice moderator of the 216th Presbyterian General Assembly and pastor of the Lake View Presbyterian Church in Louisiana, told her lunchtime audience about the ongoing struggle to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Rev. Carol Wickersham of Beloit, Wisconsin spoke about No To Torture, a group formed following the Abu Ghraib abuses, and likened the social justice commitment of the PCUSA to Daniel fighting the many-headed dragon. “All the people in this room are engaged in the same struggle,” she said, “whether we are fighting one head or another.”
The Program continued Sunday, training participants to lobby their elected representatives, with Monday spent on Capitol Hill.
For more information about Ecumenical Advocacy Days, visit their Web site, <www.advocacydays.org>, or call conference coordinator Michael Neuroth at (202) 230-2276. For more information about Churches for Middle East Peace, visit <www.cmep.org>.