Religious leaders urge Obama on in Middle East peace efforts

By agency reporter
June 2, 2009

As President Barack Obama's efforts towards a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine continue, religious leaders in the region and in the US are urging him to press for a lasting peace in the Middle East.

Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders representing the US-based National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East (NILI) have written commending Obama's decision to make Arab-Israeli-Palestinian peace "a high priority from the start of his presidency."

The letter was sent in anticipation of several key meetings between President Obama and Palestinian and Israeli leaders on the eve of the White House summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The President was also in conversation with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last month (May 2009).

Hardliners on both sides are continuing to resist a two-state solution, but analysts say the momentum is moving in that direction.

"Despite the challenges and discouraging developments, there remains a window of hope to achieve both a viable two-state solution, acceptable to majorities of Israelis and Palestinians, and a final comprehensive peace between Israel and all her Arab neighbours," said the NILI leaders last month.

Following a 14-15 May 2009 peace conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. the Anglican Bishop in Jerusalem, Suheil Dawani joined other global Christian leaders in supporting President Obama's commitment to Middle East peace issues, while calling for Gaza's borders to be opened immediately.

Chaired by former President Jimmy Carter, the conference, entitled 'Towards a New Christian Consensus: Peace with Justice in the Holy Land,' welcomed leaders from The Kairos Project, Churches for Middle East Peace, and the World Council of Churches.

Dawani was the only participant in the group from Jerusalem's Palestinian Christian community, according to a press release from the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

In his 18 May meeting with Netanyahu, President Obama reportedly urged the Israeli prime minister to grasp a "historic opportunity" to make peace with the Palestinians and to halt the building of Jewish settlements.

The leaders shared their concern that Israeli settlements make a two-state solution "less and less possible" and called for the borders of the embattled Gaza strip to be opened "in a manner that respects both humanitarian and security concerns."

Although Israel withdrew its military and settlers from Gaza in 2005, it continues to maintain control over entry into the Palestinian territory via land, air, and sea.

On 4 February 2009, Bishop Dawani, the Greek Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour and the Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, were denied entry to Gaza for a pastoral visit to the Al Ahli Arab Hospital, an institution of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem, despite having been informed that their request for permits had been granted. Five weeks later, on 10 March the Israeli authorities finally granted permission for the religious leaders to enter Gaza.

Following the Atlanta meeting and on his return to Jerusalem, Dawani said he had been "deeply impressed with the upbeat spirit" at the conference and by Carter's strong belief in a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

"While I fully recognize the complexities, I believe that Christians have historically played a very important leadership role in the spiritual leadership and politics of the region as well as the various public and private sectors of the economy," said Dawani, who presented a paper at the conference entitled 'Traditions of the Christian Community in the Land of the Holy One and Threats to its Continuing Presence.'

In recent years, the Christian community in the Holy Land has witnessed a marked decline in its numbers as the younger generation flees from the region to escape the hostilities and search for greater opportunities.

"The education and values of local Christians help to create respectful and constructive dialogue among people of different faiths and economic conditions," Dawani said in his paper. "The urgency to preserve an indigenous Christian community in the Holy Land is crucial to its ability in continuing to serve as a moderating and reconciling element in the social and cultural fabric of the Middle East."

With grateful acknowledgments to Matthew Davies and Episcopal Life Online -

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