As US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice travels to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders in the wake of the chaos occasioned by Israel's intervention in Gaza, senior US church figures have written calling for urgent action.
The letter from the the leaders of US Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and church-related organizations that make up Churches for Middle East Peace was sent at the end of last week, before the latest developments in Gaza - from which Israeli troops are now being removed, following over 100 deaths.
a US state department official said: "We're encouraging Israel to exercise caution to avoid the loss of innocent life."
The European Union criticised what it called Israel's ''disproportionate use of force'' and also demanded an immediate end to Palestinian militant rocket attacks on Israel.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, one of Israel's few Muslim allies, said there was "no humane or legal justification for the attacks on Gaza''.
Mr Abbas's spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeina, blamed Israel for the suspension of talks on all levels. "In light of the Israeli aggression such communication has no meaning," he declared.
A spokesperson for Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Arye Mekel, said the Palestinian decision was a mistake and expressed hope negotiations would resume.
Mr Abbas restarted the talks after a conference in November 2007 in the US city of Annapolis, Maryland.
The full text of the church leaders' statement is as follows:
Dear Secretary Rice,
As you prepare to return to the Middle East, we - the leaders of U.S. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches and church-related organizations that make up Churches for Middle East Peace - are writing to ask you to take urgent action to address the still unresolved Gaza crisis. The continuing violence and suffering experienced by Palestinians and Israelis is hindering progress on the peace process and also create conditions that pose a particular threat to the small Christian community in Gaza.
As people of faith, we are greatly concerned by the situation of civilians caught in the conflict. The blockade of Gaza and the frequent occurrence of rocket attacks against southern Israel cannot be tolerated. The blockade results in power outages, water and food shortages and a lack of adequate access to medical supplies that create a humanitarian crisis felt by all Gazans, while rocket attacks on Israel have targeted civilians indiscriminately and made normal life impossible in the areas affected.
If action is not taken soon, the possibility of a larger military confrontation looms. We welcome your February 22 statement announcing additional U.S. resources to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and recognizing that improvements on the ground are necessary to the peace process. We join together to ask you to work with the international community to achieve a ceasefire, end the blockade, and establish real security at Gaza's borders. The current closure and separation of Gaza has increased violence and humanitarian hardship. It also is not compatible with the vision of a viable and contiguous Palestinian state living in peace alongside a secure Israel for which you and President Bush have so eloquently called.
While our concern is for all the peoples of the Holy Land, we must raise our particular distress about the recent bombing of the YMCA library in Gaza. Though authorities in Gaza have denounced this action, it follows the killing of a Christian bookseller last fall and is symptomatic of the deteriorating social conditions and instability that threaten the safety of all the residents of Gaza. A reduction of tensions in Gaza and the easing of daily life will strengthen the tiny Christian community just as progress on the peace process will help sustain Christian communities elsewhere in the region. Such steps are vital to preserving the cultural and religious pluralism that has long enriched the Middle East.
We believe that all the children of Abraham should be able to live in the "land of milk and honey" free of violence and insecurity and with the ability to provide a positive future for their families. We are grateful to you and President Bush for your efforts, and we urge you to use your upcoming visit to resolve the Gaza crisis and enable substantive progress forward on peace negotiations. Our prayers will be with you as you travel and in the days ahead.
Bishop Wayne Burkette Moravian Church in America
Marie Dennis Director Maryknoll Global Concerns
Sr. Donna Graham, OSF President Franciscan Friars (OFM) English Speaking Conference, JPIC Council
Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson General Secretary Reformed Church in America
The Rev. Mark S. Hanson Presiding Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Rev. Dr. Stan Hastey Minister for Mission and Ecumenism Alliance of Baptists
The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon General Secretary National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick Stated Clerk of the General Assembly Presbyterian Church, (USA)
Albert C. Lobe Interim Executive Director Mennonite Central Committee
Reverend John L. McCullough Executive Director and CEO Church World Service
Mary Ellen McNish General Secretary American Friends Service Committee
Stanley J. Noffsinger General Secretary Church of the Brethren
Bishop William B. Oden Ecumenical Officer The Council of Bishops The United Methodist Church
Very Rev. Thomas Picton, CSsR President Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men's Institutes
Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) Primate Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori Presiding Bishop Episcopal Church
Rev. William G. Sinkford President Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
The Rev. John H. Thomas General Minister and President United Church of Christ
Joe Volk Executive Secretary Friends Committee on National Legislation .