Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 58, 59


Middle East and "New World Order" Featured at Two Ecumenical Events

By the Reverend L. Humphrey Walz

The optimistic slogan popularized in the lull immediately after Operation Desert Storm-plus a big question mark and two searching questions-provided the title for twin international ecumenical consultations in Chicago and New York. "A New World Order?" asked their announcements. "By Whose Authority? And By What Means?"

The Chicago conference met April 26 to 28 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church. Its New York counterpart met April 29 to May 1 at Interchurch Center. Among distinguished theologians from five continents who participated was Dr. Gabriel Habib, general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). A Lebanese Orthodox Christian layman, he had worked in the 1970s with Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali (now secretary-general of the United Nations) for human rights throughout the Middle East.

Later, they teamed up to back the Egyptian initiative for unity and peace in the Arab world and Africa. Not surprisingly, therefore, on this latest visit to his American wife's homeland, Dr. Habib stressed cooperation with U.N. "ambassadors for peace" as churches pursue their "ministry of reconciliation."

Worldwide political, social and economic trends challenge churches in the Middle East at every level, he reported. Widely accepted secular ideologies such as capitalism, socialism, communism and democracy are being displaced by "ethnocentric" and "religious" parties, or by narrowly defined nationalisms. Amidst these ferments, political or military pragmatists are promoting new means to establish or enforce local, regional and global order.

Difficult to grasp in theory, and staggering to contend with in practice, these burgeoning movements challenge Christians to work afresh for single-standard ethics leading to "freedom and justice as the basis of real peace," Dr. Habib asserted. Rooting society in "moral and spiritual values" and in "the uniting power of love and reconciliation" will require "all the courage, self-sacrifice and clear thinking we can muster."

Much of the focus throughout both events was on finding and applying answers to such questions as: "What is the nature of a legitimate state?" "How should Christians pledge allegiance to their state and loyalty to their faith?" "How can freedom and a responsible humanity be rooted in ultimate faith?" "What can bring about a new birth of catholicity (inclusiveness in faith) among Christians which could contribute to a shared sense of common human purpose?"

One question given special urgency by developments in many regions, including the Middle East, was: "How can we contend against the frequent use of religious terms and associations for narrow political purposes?" Major papers from the twin conferences, edited by Dr. Christian T. Iosso of the National Council of Churches, will be published by Friendship Press.

Distinguished theologians from five continents participated.

Between the Chicago and New York meetings, on invititation from the Wisconsin Conference of Churches, Habib spoke twice in Madison, WI. On the evening of April 28, he addressed a public forum at the First Congregational (U.C.C.) Church on "Prospects for Peace in the Middle East: the Role of the Churches." The following morning, at a breakfast at Christ Presbyterian, he discussed with bishops and denominational and ecumenical officials the principles of such church involvement in the peace process.

Members of the Wisconsin Conference of Churches were able to arrange the Madison appearances only because the Minnesota Council of Churches unexpectedly declined an opportunity to co-sponsor Habib. The Wisconsin sponsors were saddened, however, by the reasons given for the Minnesota Council's rejection of the opportunity to interact with a concerned Middle Eastern Christian leader.

Persons claiming to speak for Minnesota's "Jewish community" had protested some Middle East Council of Churches' positions on Israel, and the support MECC gives to Palestinians. Some members of the Minnesota Council of Churches therefore proposed that, before inviting Dr. Habib, a committee study in advance the text of his talk. Other members found an invitation setting forth such conditions too restrictive, since Christian audiences would expect him to interpret frankly and informatively the positions of Middle Eastern Christians on current fast-breaking developments in the Middle East. As a result, the Minnesota invitation was not extended and the Wisconsin audiences were the beneficiaries.

Lebanon Relief Diminishes As Reconstruction Needs Increase

As Lebanon struggles to deal with post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction, financial contributions from churches worldwide for relief there are shrinking. From her latest trip to Beirut, Brenda Fitzpatrick of the World Council of Churches' Sharing and Service Program reported that one result is the curtailment of medicines and related materials. As a consequence, preventable deaths are increasing, and "the number of women unable to feed their babies has risen considerably."

Also from Beirut, Suad Hajj, head of the Emergency, Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Program of the Middle East Council of Churches, reports that "although bullets and shells no longer blast buildings or cause children to spend nights of fear in bomb shelters, the battle for reconstructuring people's lives continues." Now that they can "come out of the shelters and use the roads," she says, "they can speak and be heard and ask for help to rebuild their homes."

To on-the-spot observers like Fitzpatrick and Hajj, it is clear that, with the decrease in hostilities, some reconstruction-related civilian needs are increasing. This is contrary, however, to assumptions abroad. More than a dozen church agencies that helped financially all through the 16 years of Lebanese civil war and foreign incursions halted their aid after the fighting stopped.

Judaism and Social Justice

"Judaism is not just self-interest. It is about remaking the world in a fair and just way," according to Tikkun magazine, now in its seventh year of publication. Its restless editor, Michael Lerner, long eager to move beyond the printed page into public activism, has now launched the "Committee for Judaism and Social Justice" (CJSJ). It is based at Tikkun headquarters, 5100 Leona St., Oakland, CA 94619, and an eight-page brochure outlines its goals and structure.

Its intent is to bring spiritual-ethical-moral (S-E-M-itic) Judaism into the public arena. It calls for ending the documented torture in Israel, freezing Jewish settlement expansion in the occupied territories, and pushing the Israeli government into working toward a land-for-peace solution to Palestinian-Israeli problems.

High on its agenda is prodding like-minded groups into bolder, more forceful confrontation of North American "establishment Jews." These latter, the brochure says, are "usually not elected by or accountable to those in whose name they claim to speak."

The brochure continues: "Power in the Jewish world resides primarily with those who have the most money, assisted by a large army of professionals whose primary skills are to raise funds or to show those with money that their interests will be served. . .

"The mainstream of American Jewish life has become increasingly anti-intellectual, anti-spiritual, undemocratic, stifling to creativity and change, and materialistic. . . It often reflects the same selfishness and self-centeredness that is the hallmark of contemporary Western society."

Concerning the substance of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, the brochure declares that "Israel is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people," but that "the Palestinian people have the same right to national self-determination."

This switch from thinking of Jews as rooted in a moral heritage to treating them as a nationality raises problems, both ideological and practical. However, it is upon the Biblical command to "love your neighbor as yourself"-starting in the family and extending to the community, the business world and ultimately international affairs-that CJSJ is depending for its growth.

Australian Churches Stay Firm for Palestinians

Ron Brown, mission director for the Uniting Church of Australia, has met in Sydney with Jews who have been pressing that ecumenical body to remove from circulation its document highlighting the plight of Palestinians. The Jewish critics objected to the document's criticism of treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli army.

Brown acknowledged their differences of opinion on the causes of Palestinian suffering, according to the Ecumenical Press Service. Nonetheless, he told the Jewish objectors his church "will continue to support the Palestinians in their struggle for justice and human rights in the Middle East." It stood by its claims, he said, that "the government of Israel is systematically dispossessing the Palestinians of their land and properties. . . oppressing them economically and, in other ways, denying them their human rights." Brown concluded, "We consider that those claims are thoroughly substantiated by reports from reputable international, Jewish and Palestinian organizations." 

The Reverend L. Humphrey Walz, D.D., retired associate executive of the Presbyterian Synod of the Northeast, is active in denominational and ecumenical peacemaking activities.

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