Palestinian Christian organisations have urged protests by church groups around the world against an Israeli assault on ships bringing aid to Gaza, which Israel says has led to the deaths of at least 10 activists on board the convoy - write Judith Sudilovsky and Stephen Brown from Bethlehem and Geneva.
The Joint Advocacy Initiative of the East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine said on 31 May 2010 that it "strongly condemns this massacre against unarmed civilians which visibly violates international law and human rights".
Activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting; Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons, the BBC reported, quoting an Israeli spokesperson.
The YMCA and YWCA urged sister movements throughout the world as well as church leaders and groups to organise demonstrations in front of government buildings or Israeli embassies to protest against the action.
In Geneva, ACT Alliance, an international coalition organising church-based emergency operations in Gaza, condemned the Israeli military attacks [and] called for an independent international investigation. ACT General Secretary John Nduna said those responsible must be held accountable.
Bernard Sabella, head of the ACT Forum in Jerusalem called the Israeli action "a crime by any standard", in a statement distributed by the Geneva-based humanitarian alliance.
A statement distributed by the Jerusalem Inter-Church Centre said that Palestinian Christian church and community leaders, "condemn in the strongest language possible the irresponsible actions perpetrated by the Israeli forces against civilian participants of the Freedom Flotilla".
It urged action to ensure that Israel ended its "siege of Gaza and ... its military occupation of the Palestinian Territories".
The flotilla, carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian and peace activists, was bearing supplies headed for Gaza, the coastal enclave that is run by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. Those taking part said they were seeking to break the sea blockade of Gaza maintained by Israel which they say is inhumane.
In a statement, the Israel Defence Forces said reports from the scene "indicated that some of the participants onboard … were planning to lynch the forces".
An Israeli commando identified as A told reporters he descended with ropes and was immediately attacked by a group of people waiting for the Israeli forces. "They beat us up with metal sticks and knives," he said. "There was live fire at some point against us."
Audrey Bomse of the Free Gaza movement, an organiser of the convoy, was quoted by the BBC as saying that a live video stream showed the Israelis, "coming out of helicopters and shooting immediately". She added, "I can tell you that there were no firearms - all the boats were carefully inspected by the government before they left the port of departure."
The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem also demanded an independent investigation into the circumstances of the military action, whether the Israeli forces used proportionate force, and whether they were trained to cope with such an event. It said that IDF assertions of "extreme violence" by activists were "based solely on statements of soldiers" and that the investigation must consider all testimonies by eye witnesses.
The appeals came as the World Council of Churches (WCC) was urging Christians to take part in a 29 May-4 June "World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel".
"We are uniting our voices with others, to speak with one voice against the injustices being suffered by the Palestinian people living under occupation for now more than 43 years," the convenor of the peace week, the Rev John Calhoun, told a 31 May service at the WCC's Geneva headquarters. "It is time for this conflict to end," said Calhoun, a United Methodist minister from the United States who is based in Amman, Jordan.
Speaking before the service, WCC General Secretary the Rev Olav Fykse Tveit described the peace week as being "timely" given the reports of the deaths on the flotilla of ships seeking to go to Gaza. "All parties must stop violence and find the way forward," said Tveit. The WCC says the prayer week, "calls participants to seek justice for Palestinians so that both Israelis and Palestinians can finally live in peace".
However, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organisation, described the churches' peace week as "blatantly anti-Israel", the Christian Post reported from the United States.
In its fourth year, the week is the initiative of the WCC with partners that include Pax Christi International, a Roman Catholic group.
At Bethlehem, about 100 people gathered for an ecumenical worship service on 29 May to mark the launch of the week just a few hundred metres from the separation barrier erected by Israel that in many instances intrudes into the West Bank.
"Our prayer very clearly is for all checkpoints and the wall to be eliminated. That's the focus of our prayer," said the Rev. Naim Ateek, a retired Anglican cleric and founder of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre.
Israel began building the barrier during the Palestinian uprising, called an intifada, during which suicide bombers crossed over from Palestinian areas into Israel causing hundreds of deaths. The barrier cuts into Palestinian land and prevents residents of Bethlehem from freely crossing into Jerusalem.
As well as Ateek, Greek Orthodox Archimandrite Attallah Hanna, and Melkite Bethlehem priest Youkob Abu Saadah, attended the ecumenical service which included readings from both the Old and the New Testaments of the Bible.
The week features a prayer issued by the heads of churches in Jerusalem for Christians around the world to pray with them for justice and peace in the region.
"Free the souls and hearts of Israelis and Palestinians," the prayer states. "Give liberation, freedom and dignity, to the people of Gaza who live under trials, threats and blockades. Guide the leaders in this land, purify their minds and hearts, to become true servers of their peoples."
On 30 May, the Jerusalem Prayer was read in Palestinian churches of all denominations as well as churches in various countries around the world including Sweden, Austria, Australia, Cuba, the United States, Canada and the Philippines.
"I believe the prayer for peace is very important," said Zoughbi Zoughbi, director of Wi'am, the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Centre. He said it would help focus attention on "the plight of the Palestinians and [the] search for peace in the Middle East".
Gabriela Steinger, a 62-year-old German member of the Pax Christi group taking part in the ecumenical prayer said, "I think we must show solidarity to the people here. We are Christian and this is something we can do together to encourage each other."
The Jerusalem Prayer can be found at: www.oikoumene.org/en/events-sections/wwppi/pray.html
[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.]