The outgoing General Secretary of the World Council of Churches has said that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories should be declared a "sin against God" - write Peter Kenny and Stephen Brown.
"Occupation along with the concomitant humiliation of a whole people for over six decades constitutes not just economic and political crimes but, like anti-Semitism, it is a sin against God," said WCC general secretary the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, in a report on 26 August 2009 to a meeting of the church grouping's main governing body, its central committee.
He noted that at its founding assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, the WCC has declared that anti-Semitism is a "sin against God". Kobia said, "Are we ready to say that occupation is also a sin against God?"
In his speech, Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya, referred to areas he visited during his tenure and noted the need for urgency in seeking peace for the Middle East region. "In the context of war and violence in the region, people are desperately searching for security for themselves and their families," Kobia said.
He was giving his final report to the main governing body of the WCC as the grouping's General Secretary, before he steps down at the end of 2009. The 26 August to 2 September meeting of the WCC central committee has elected the Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian theologian and pastor, as its new General Secretary from 1 January 2010.
Kobia was elected to a five-year term that began in 2004 and announced in February 2008 that for "personal reasons" he would not seek a second term.
The WCC groups 349 churches, principally Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church does not belong to the WCC but has members on some of its committees.
Speaking to journalists after delivering his report, Kobia referred to the "dehumanisation" of both the occupied and the occupiers in the Palestinian territories. "The concern is not only for the victims but also the perpetrators," he stated, referring to Israel.
Kobia recalled that former South African president Nelson Mandela had once said that a condemnation by the WCC of apartheid as "sin" had helped undermine the system of minority white rule.
In his report to the WCC governing body, Kobia said that the "the ongoing construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories" needed to be seen "within the broader historical context of ethnic upheaval in Palestine which paved the way for the creation of the modern state of Israel".
While he said Israelis recalled "The War of Independence" that led to the foundation of the State of Israel, for Palestinians the period would always be known as the "Nakba" or "catastrophe". Many Palestinians would remember this as "a form of 'ethnic cleansing' that saw the largest forced migration in modern history", Kobia said.
"It is estimated that no less than a million people were expelled from their homes at gunpoint, civilians were massacred, hundreds of Palestinian villages deliberately destroyed, mosques and churches profaned, and convents and schools vandalised.
"What in 1948 was described by Palestinians leaders as 'racism and ghettoising the Palestinians in Haifa' has by the beginning of the 21st century in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza become a full-blown apartheid system complete with its brand of 'Bantustans'," argued Kobia, referring to the nominally black-ruled territories in South Africa during the apartheid era.
He said that hundreds of church-owned properties were at risk in current evictions of Palestinian families and demolition of their homes in East Jerusalem and that the Israeli actions hobbled efforts by the new US administration to reach out to the Middle East.
Kobia also referred to visiting Damascus with the heads of the Middle East Council of Churches and of the Christian Conference of Asia.
There they met, "Iraqi Christians who had been forced to leave their country simply because they were Christians and the occupation of their country was seen as a form of modern day Christian crusade".
"This issue requires, at the least, close co-operation with churches in the receiving countries but, even more, a common commitment for peaceful solutions to the conflicts in the region," asserted Kobia. "We must all play a part in finding solutions. The Middle East needs peace and needs it today, for tomorrow is too late."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]