Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September 8, 1986, Page 14


Religion and the Middle East

By The Reverend L. Humphrey Walz

National Council of Churches Statement:

Six years ago, on November 6, 1980, the National Council of Churches (USA) governing board unanimously adopted a Middle East Policy Statement including a major section on "Relations with People of Other Faiths." "Today," it affirmed then, "there is evidence of the necessity of responding to opportunities for new openness to each other by Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is urgent that people of different faiths seek new contacts, relationships, and ways of working together ... Christians in the U.S.A. need to expand their associations with Muslims and Jews who are their neighbors. Here is an opportunity not only to gain a greater understanding of Judaism and Islam, but also to work toward cooperative relations based on friendship and trust."

To make the difference it should, this statement needed responses from international leaders of both Jewry and Islam. Hence, one year ago, for the fifth anniversary of the document's adoption, the NCC invited Rabbi-Professor Arthur Hertzberg, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, and Dr. Abdullah Umar al-Nassif, secretary-general of the Muslim World League, to address a plenary session of its governing board on this theme.

"It is of deep concern to me as a Jew," Hertzberg told that body, "that there be serious Christianity in the world ... serious Islam and serious Buddhism." He urged adherents of all faiths to "ask ourselves the very simple question: 'How together we can see to it that there is less violence.... hatred.... ignorance.... anger.... poverty and more peace?'"

In a similar vein, al-Nassif cited the Quranic assertion that God "made you into nations and tribes so that you might know [and] ... not despise one another." In this light, he indicated among other things, "poverty, famine, hunger and disease" challenge Muslims, Christians and Jews to think and work together for "a community where you and I join hands in promoting the worship of God and excel each other in ... duty to mankind."

Christians Deplore Defamation of Islam:

Leaders of major religious bodies in the nation's capital—Protestant, Unitarian, Orthodox and ecumenical—have unitedly expressed concern over: 1) "The alarming increase of anti-Islamic rhetoric and stereotyping ... by elected officials" and 2) "The uncritical way the media have referred to Muslims and the Islamic faith ... (in) coverage of ... the Middle East."

Their latest joint public statement urges: 1) "the Administration and ... Congress to recognize. . . that the Muslim religion is respectful of the Biblical faiths" and 2) "the media in reporting on international issues to avoid racial and religious stereotyping."

Terrorism Questionnaire:

Students at Austin College in Sherman, Texas have been offered the option of spending their first 1987 term in the Middle East. To help counter such fears as might unwarrantedly inhibit taking advantage of this opportunity, Chaplain Henry Bucher has developed a three-page "Test Yourself on Terrorism" questionnaire. Peeking at the answer pages one finds, among other unfamiliar facts: The airports with the world's worst records for hijackings between 1977 and 1985 were Miami (14 incidents) and New York (10)—compared with Athens' 1. The FBI lists 395 domestic terrorist incidents for the same period, six of which were perpetrated by Arabs, all of them against fellow Arabs (Libyan and Saudi).

Lebanon and Its Needs:

In response to questions stimulated by recent violence in Beirut, Gabriel Habib, general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, states: "Despite considerable destruction and disintegration, Lebanon remains a unique experience ... which must not be lost. It is of great value to the peoples of the region and the world at large, for all those who seek existential dialogue between Islam and Christianity ...

"The solution of [Lebanon's] ordeal depends not only on the Lebanese. The Arab-Israeli conflict continues to take place partly in Lebanon. The Palestinian question, with important linkages to the Lebanese question, is not yet solved. The international context ... has made ... Lebanon the theatre of a continuing international mini-war by proxy."

Asked what U.S. churches might do, Habib answered: "1) Promote information ... which would go beyond the stereotypes of violence and terrorism created by the media that cover events only without touching on the root causes behind such events." 2) Back the "role of religious leaders ... to create a climate of understanding and exercise moral pressure on the different groups in conflict ... 3) Continue humanitarian aid ... that would contribute toward the participation of all the communities and nurture ... reconciliation and peace." 

The Rev. L. Humphrey Walz, retired associate executive of the Presbyterian Synod of the Northeast, is founding editor of The Link, published by Americans for Middle East Understanding, and serves on the board of that organization. He is active in Christian-Jewish, Christian-Islamic and other interfaith dialogues. He pursued graduate Biblical studies at Oxford University, the New York Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary.


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