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Jerusalem churches: Don't veto Palestine resolution

Middle East and US religious leaders chart path forward for two-state solution.
The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem Theophilos III (C) attends a Christmas service according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar, in the church of Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem January 6, 2016. REUTERS/Ammar Awad  - RTX219EO

Jerusalem's Christian leaders are jointly asking President Barack Obama not to veto a possible Palestine resolution at the United Nations following a historic summit with their American counterparts.

Leaders of 24 US and Palestinian churches gathered in Atlanta this week for a two-day summit at the Carter Center to chart a path forward for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Separately, the Holy Land church leaders wrote to Obama urging him not to use his veto if the UN Security Council takes up a two-state resolution later this year against Israel's wishes.

"As Holy Land church leaders, we approach you, Mr. President, to stress to you the gravity of the situation in the region. The hopes and aspirations of many of the faithful in the Holy Land for a two-state solution on the basis of the 1967 borders are quickly fading," the patriarchs and heads of local churches in Jerusalem wrote in an April 20 letter obtained by Al-Monitor. "We plead to you, during the remainder of your term, to invest in a just peace and to refrain from exercising the US veto rights in the United Nations Security Council in order to deliver new hopes for a just peace in the region and an end to extremism, terrorism, death and destruction in the entire Middle East."

The letter is signed by Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III, Armenian Patriarch Nourhan Manogian, Latin (Catholic) Patriarch Fuad Twal, Anglican Archbishop Suheil Dawani, Evangelical Lutheran Church Bishop Munib Younan and (Franciscan) Custos Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

"I'm not representing an Israeli or Palestinian point of view," Younan told Al-Monitor following an April 22 meeting with State Department officials in Washington. "It is high time to find a solution. And the Palestinians and Israelis among themselves cannot do it. They need the international community because the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not only a regional conflict; it's an international conflict."

Time is running out for Christians in the Holy Land and the greater Middle East, Younan said, as the open sore of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels extremism across the region.

"It is high time that politicians have an initiative in order to create momentum," Younan said. "Because I tell you, if there is no solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict soon, we are afraid that extremism will grow."

The push comes as France has announced an international meeting in Paris on May 30 to restart negotiations. The Palestinians had threatened to bring up a resolution condemning continued Israeli settlement expansion but are reportedly under pressure to shelve the idea while France pursues its initiative.

This week's meeting with the US churches was organized by former President Jimmy Carter's center in Atlanta in tandem with the Palestinian government's presidential committee for church affairs. Summit participants put out a four-page document summarizing their peacemaking strategies including plans to "develop a more effective advocacy in the USA" and urging the executive branch and Congress to "adopt balanced and just positions that would pave the way for, and meaningfully accompany the necessary steps toward, a just and enduring solution of the conflict and a lasting peace."

The document also calls for finding "appropriate ways to exert economic leverage on commercial and governmental actors to end unfair and unjust practices and policies which violate international laws and conventions." It stops short of endorsing the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which is opposed by both the Obama administration and Congress.

The churches "want to maintain the mosaic of Jerusalem," Issa Kassissieh, the Palestinian ambassador to the Vatican, told Al-Monitor. "The presence of Christians is threatened because of the current situation. And they want to stress and pass the message to the American administration that time is running out and they are concerned about the two-state solution. Because the alternative to the two-state solution is much worse for everybody."

Kassissieh said the Palestinians feel like they're not getting a fair shake from US policymakers, particularly in Congress. He hopes that dual activism with US religious leaders could change that. 

"If they combine their voice together as heads of churches in the [United] States and in Jerusalem, I'm sure that they will create a different dynamic and they will play a positive role toward solving the problems of the region," he said. "Congress is deaf about the grievances and the concerns and the suffering of the people, but at least the church is raising this voice and of course together we will have more influence on the American administration."

In addition to meetings with White House and State Department officials, including US Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs Shaun Casey, the Jerusalem church leaders also held a closed briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill on April 21. Only one lawmaker, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, and two staffers showed up.

"These are extraordinary men and women who come from a very troubled part of the world, a part of the world that many of us have an intense interest in," Stewart told Al-Monitor. "And they are committed to bringing peace and a solution, not just to the Palestinian question, but to the region as a whole."

Stewart defended the sparse attendance, saying he and his colleagues were given scant notice. He welcomed the opportunity to hear firsthand from the religious figures but predicted that lawmakers' near-unanimous opposition to international efforts to pressure Israel back to the negotiating table would likely remain unchanged.

"Although all of us want to see a peaceful solution as quickly as possible, there are obviously differences of opinion on how to do that," Stewart said. "I'm not very persuaded. As I said to them, the first thing we have to start with is security. You've got to have all of the parties feel like not only their national interests but [also] the safety of their citizens is being assured. And that's very difficult to do right now."

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