Former United States President Jimmy Carter has told Christian leaders in Jerusalem that he sees "new hope" for the peace process in the Middle East - writes Judith Sudilovsky.
"His analysis is that there is a new hope for the peace process given the new US administration's determination to press seriously for hope and to be an honest broker in the peace process," said Hrair Balian, director of the Carter Center's Peace and Conflict Resolution department following a closed-door meeting with the Christian leaders on 18 June 2009 at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate.
Carter was near the end of an almost two week tour of the region and spoke to both Israeli officials and Hamas as well as regional leaders.
Balian said the meeting with international and local Christian leaders and the World Council of Churches was held in a very "friendly, warm atmosphere" where Carter shared his impressions of the situation in the Middle East.
The former US president had [been] part of an observation team for the 7 June Lebanese elections and had spoken to Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Syria. They did not discuss the situation in Iran or Iraq, said Balian.
The Christian leaders discussed the dwindling numbers of young Christian Palestinians who emigrate abroad for better life opportunities. Balian said Carter would use his trip to raise "international consciousness", including within the US administration, of the conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
The former president will also seek measures to "encourage Christian Palestinians to remain in the Holy Land".
Carter's trip took him through Syria, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza to promote constructive dialogue on the Israeli-Arab conflict. In addition to the Syrian leaders, Carter met with Israeli president, Shimon Peres; the president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas; Palestinian Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad; and the Palestinian Reform Steering Committee.
He also met with Israeli human rights leaders, visited an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, where he spoke with settler leaders and visited Gaza, delivering a speech at the graduation ceremony for students of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East's Human Rights Programme.
Carter, a committed Christian and Baptist, also met with Noam Shalit, the father of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who is believed to be held in Hamas-controlled territory in Gaza. Balian said Carter had been able to deliver to Hamas a letter from the elder Shalit to his son. He was hopeful it would be delivered.
In his speech in Gaza, Carter also mentioned the 11, 700 Palestinian prisoners - 400 of them women and children - being held in Israeli jails.
"Rational negotiations and a comprehensive peace can end this suffering on both sides," said Carter.
At the Gaza graduation ceremony Carter said, following his talks with Hamas, it appeared that the group was "ready to join the peace process and move toward the creation of an independent and just Palestinian state".
Enumerating the destruction in Gaza following the war and the continuing economic siege, Carter said that the international community "largely ignores the cries for help while the citizens of Gaza are treated more like animals than human beings".
He also spoke about the need of reconciliation among Palestinian factions and urged them to create a state which was "pluralistic and democratic". "The Palestinian State, like the land, must be blessed for all people. Jerusalem must be shared with everyone who loves it – Christians, Jews, and Muslims."
[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.]