A region-concern alliance of major Christian denominations in the USA, Churches for Middle East Peace, has appealed to United States assistant secretary of state David Welch to seek a halt to Israeli excavations near the Temple Mount (Haram al- Sharif) in the Old City of Jerusalem - a major Islamic and Jewish holy site.
The churches' letter raises concerns about the long-standing issues behind the serious outbreaks of violent protests in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and globally - events which have overshadowed news about attempts to achieve unity within the Palestinian leadership.
Recalling the aftermath of Ariel Sharon's infamous visit to the Muslim hilltop compound in 2000, which sparked a Palestinian uprising, the church leaders note that around 10,000 people joined protests in Nazareth last week.
The letter urges the US government to strongly assert its official policy that the status of Jerusalem must be determined by negotiations rather than pre-emptive action, and that neither party should undertake initiatives which would prejudice the results of such properly constituted talks.
Last Tuesday (6 February 2007) Israel began building a walkway up to the compound, on which sits the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque. The site is believed by Jewish interpreters to be situated above remains of two biblical temples. Muslims, meanwhile, hold it to be the site from where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.
While expressing deep concern about the irregularities of the situation at Temple Mount, Churches for Middle East Peace have welcomed recent US diplomatic efforts to achive a sustainable peace, notably secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's meetings with both the Israeli and Palestinian administrations.
The church representatives declare: "The United States could provide a strong signal of the rewards of taking steps toward peace by resuming financial assistance to a new unity government."
But they go on to warn that "these important steps toward peacemaking may be overwhelmed by the [damaging]consequences of Israel's actions in the Old City of Jerusalem."
Formed in 1984, Churches for Middle East Peace is a Washington-based program of the Alliance of Baptists, American Friends Service Committee, Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Armenian Orthodox Church, Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Church World Service, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Franciscan Friars OFM (English Speaking Conference, Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation Council), Friends Committee on National Legislation, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Maryknoll Missioners, Mennonite Central Committee, National Council of Churches, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America, Unitarian Universalist Association, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church.
The full letter reads as follows:
Churches for Middle East Peace urgently appeals to you and Secretary Rice to convince the government of Israel to halt excavations near the Temple Mount/Harem al-Sharif. The quickly escalating violent response to Ariel Sharon's visit to the compound in 2000 demonstrated the sensitivity of actions affecting the compound. Unless Israel quickly stops the excavation work, and the planned construction, we fear that violent protests will break out in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza and far beyond. Today's protests by 10,000 people in Nazareth exemplifies the combustive nature of actions that appear to violate the sanctity of this profoundly holy site. Perhaps, with appropriate consultation with Wafq authorities who maintain the Harem al-Sharif, and with their cooperation, construction necessary for safe access could be resumed.
The long-held policy of the United States that the status of Jerusalem must be determined by a negotiated agreement and that neither party should take actions that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations must be strongly asserted by US officials.
The news of Secretary Rice's meeting on February 19 with Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas is encouraging to all who seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict with two viable and secure states living side-by-side. Additionally, reports of an emerging Palestinian unity government increase hope that intra-Palestinian violence will subside and that preparations can be made for negotiations with Israel. The United States could provide a strong signal of the rewards of taking steps toward peace by resuming financial assistance to a new unity government.
But instead, these important steps toward peacemaking may be overwhelmed by the consequences - widespread public protests and angry objections of moderate Arab allies - of Israel's actions in the Old City of Jerusalem.
A delegation from Churches for Middle East Peace visited Jerusalem and the Haram al-Sharif last year. We were again reminded of just how significant this site is to our Muslims brothers and sisters and therefore feel even more acutely for them at this time. We appreciate your attention to our concerns and recommendations.
Chair of Board
Churches for Middle East Peace