Church leaders in the Middle East region and across the world are giving a cautious but hopeful initial response to the proposals coming out of the Annapolis summit in Maryland, USA, concerning sustainable peace in Israel and Palestine.
"So far is just a signature, now they have to walk the talk", says Munib Younan, the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, commenting on the results of the Annapolis Middle East conference hosted by the US administration on 27 November 2007.
Cautiously optimistic, he adds: "I do hope this is a serious attempt to achieve a lasting peace."
Olav Fykse Tveit, the general secretary of the Church of Norway, shares the same approach: "I hope I am not mistaken, but I see Annapolis as the starting point of a process which seems to be more than just talking. There is a political dynamic, a willingness to make real progress."
For Younan, a Palestinian Christian, the success or failure of the Annapolis conference will depend on its implementation. "The experience has taught us that words and talks must be accompanied by tangible, visible changes on the ground." Both Younan and Tveit are members of the core group of the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum, a new World Council of Churches initiative to increase advocacy for peace with justice in the region.
On Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert met in Annapolis, Maryland, United States, at a conference hosted by US president George W. Bush and attended by representatives of more than 40 countries and international agencies. Both parties agreed to "engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations", with the aim of reaching an agreement by the end of 2008.
In order to "empower the Annapolis process", there are "well-known steps" that need to be taken, Samuel Kobia, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, reminded three of the main players at the conference. In a letter addressed to Olmert, Abbas and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice the day before the talks, Kobia enumerated them:
"Early action on ending the isolation of Gaza and the collective punishment of its 1.5 million residents, stopping attacks on civilians of either side, releasing prisoners who have been denied due process on both sides, freezing all settlement growth of any kind, ceasing land expropriation, stopping work on the separation barrier, opening negotiations about the occupied Golan Heights", amongst others.
What all involved parties as well as the public at large need to understand, Tveit says, is that "this is not a negotiation between equal parties. One is the occupied, the other is the occupying. If this is not properly taken into account, there will be no lasting peace".
In addition to that, the core or "final status" issues need to be addressed. They, too, are well known. "The basic problems that divide us here are: boundaries, security, the future of Jerusalem, the illegal settlement enterprise, an equitable sharing of resources, prisoners, a just resolution of the refugee problem and the right of return", Younan wrote in an open letter made public in advance to the Annapolis conference.
A peculiar dimension of the conflict relates to the places that are regarded as holy sites by Jews, Christians and Muslims. "It is impossible to solve the conflict without bringing that issue into the discussion", says Tveit. Helping to bring together leaders from different religions on common platforms, like the newly created Council for Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, is therefore an important task for Christian churches in the region.
On the other hand, Palestinian Christians can help churches, politicians and the public at large outside the region to understand the complicated nature of the conflict. In turn, churches elsewhere have a role to play in supporting churches in the region. "Christians must remain in the Holy Land not as museum souvenirs but as living stones", Tveit says.
The role of the churches, affirms Younan, is "to continue being prophetic. We are not politicians; our role is to seek justice. If justice is not achieved, extremism will thrive. And we should not allow the extremism to take hostage Palestine and the whole Middle East. This is the time for justice and we need to seize it".