With the urgent necessity for peace in Israel and Palestine at the top of the global agenda, a World Council of Churches meeting has begun work on setting up an international forum to galvanize world-wide church advocacy for the Middle East.
The proposed Palestine/Israel Ecumenical Forum is to be a key element in a multi-year programme for peace in the region involving WCC member churches and related organizations.
Proposing "a place to face challenges as they really are", a way for churches to "overcome fear", and an opportunity for "communities of faith to play an unusually powerful role" in ending the conflict, participants from 13 countries debated various designs for the forum. They also stressed its role in ensuring a viable Christian presence as part of Palestinian national society and in the region.
Early in the debate, a tension emerged that the forum is likely to face. All agreed on the urgency of ending 40 years of occupation and a worsening conflict. But some insisted that the short-term goal of ending conflict can only be pursued if it is linked to longer-term measures aimed at reconciliation, confronting dangerous theologies and other measures to "build" peace.
The two tracks reflect the church commitment to peace with justice. However, some participants said that the long-term efforts might mainly result in meetings that soothe consciences overseas. "Don't forget the urgency," one noted. "People are dying. Hatred is increasing."
The forum's purpose and identity were major topics of debate. One participant said that church-related advocacy "had reached a 'glass ceiling' with the government" in his country. To go further "we now need to be part of a new critical mass at the international level" like the forum should promote.
Another noted that since all parties to the conflict have become increasingly implicated in religious dynamics, religion has to be part of the solution.
"As Christians we learn our sense of justice, of right relationships, in the Hebrew Bible. We must allow 'the other' to live in dignity," another said. One participant said, "If it is to be an ecumenical forum, the WCC with 348 churches in 110 countries is the place."
The 16 participants included people from Middle Eastern and other member churches with expertise in the fields of advocacy, theology, the study of religion, political analysis and conflict transformation, plus a Roman Catholic scholar, a church youth leader and a veteran of a long-standing ecumenical forum for Sudan.
In September 2005 the World Council of Churches' Central Committee endorsed setting up a Palestine/Israel Ecumenical Forum. Proposals from the design group, which met near Geneva, 6-9 December 2006, will be used in preparing an International Conference on the Middle East planned for May 2007 where the forum will be launched.
As previously reported on Ekklesia, members of the Middle East Council of Churches have welcomed the forum idea and are involved in discussions about its future.