Churches issue Middle East challenge to new US president

By Episcopal News Service
January 21, 2009

Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) say the recently announced temporary cease-fire agreement between Israel and Hamas is a "much-needed end to the unbearable violence of recent weeks."

The coalition, which includes 22 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant national church bodies including the Episcopal Church, called on President Barack Obama to fulfill his recent statements to engage in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts "from day one" of his administration.

"The Gaza crisis demonstrates the need for strong US leadership in the Israeli-Palestinian arena," CMEP said. "We will do everything possible to encourage and support peacemaking efforts."

The recent fighting began with the firing of Hamas rockets into southern Israel. On 27 December 2008, Israel responded with air strikes and began a ground assault on 3 January 2009. The temporary cease-fire was announced on 18 January.

CMEP said that Obama, who was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on 20 January, "will need to take urgent action, together with international and regional partners, to ensure that violence does not resume and to address pressing unresolved issues."

The statement called for an end to Israel's blockade "accompanied by measures necessary to ensure Israel's security" and "urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction in Gaza."

Israel's blockade of Gaza, enforced since January 2008, has created severe shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies, causing humanitarian hardship throughout the Palestinian Territory. Israel has maintained that the blockade has been necessary to put pressure on militant Palestinians allied with Hamas, which controls Gaza. Those militants are responsible for firing rockets into southern Israel, attacks that had increased in retaliation to an Israeli air strike that killed six Palestinians in November 2008.

The CMEP coalition, which is chaired by Maureen Shea, director of the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations, first called for an immediate and comprehensive cease-fire three weeks ago.

"It is tragic that a cease-fire has taken this long and that so many lives have been lost," the group said in its 19 January statement.

The Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem issued an update yesterday, two days after the cease-fire between Hamas and Israel ended the 22-day conflict that left more than 1,200 dead and thousands injured. The Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, an institution of the Jerusalem diocese, continues to providing critical healthcare services to anyone in need.

"We are exhausted, but we must begin to resume normal operations at Al Ahli Hospital," said Suhaila Tarrazi, hospital director, describing her work in the first days of the cease-fire.

The CMEP statement acknowledged that Israel's "massive military operation has taken a terrible toll on Gaza's population and public infrastructure, while ongoing indiscriminate rocket attacks against towns in southern Israel have made normal life there impossible."

"Ultimately only a comprehensive negotiated resolution of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors, including creation of a Palestinian state, can provide necessary security and a brighter future for both Israelis and Palestinians," the statement concluded. "We look forward to working with the Obama Administration toward achievement of this goal."

With acknowledgements to the Rev Mary Frances Schjonberg, national correspondent for Episcopal News Service, and Matthew Davies, international correspondent.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.