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Agency withdraws petition on Caterpillar divestment

Sending a petition to the church's top legislative body calling for divestment from Caterpillar has achieved positive results, said Jim Winkler, top executive of the church's social action agency. A UMNS photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.

By United Methodist News Service*
April 17, 2008

After direct meetings with Caterpillar Inc., the United Methodist Church's social action agency says it will withdraw a petition calling for divestment from the heavy equipment manufacturer.

The petition, sent to the denomination's top legislative body, charged that the company profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment.

Sending the petition to the 2008 United Methodist General Conference has achieved positive results, said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in Washington.

Since January, Caterpillar has opened discussions with the board, issued a statement denouncing immoral use of its equipment, and agreed to continued dialogue.

The 2008 General Conference will meet April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas. The legislative body meets every four years.

The Caterpillar statement sent to Winkler said, "Caterpillar's products are designed to improve quality of life. ... We do not condone the illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment. ... We expect our customers to use our products in environmentally responsible ways and consistent with human rights and the requirements of international humanitarian law."

The statement affirmed the importance of continuing dialogue between Caterpillar and The United Methodist Church. "We are committed to further conversations and possible philanthropic activities in Palestinian areas."

About $5 million of the denomination's estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar stock.

Social responsibility

The Rev. Steve Sprecher, a director of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, was part of the committee that led the agency to send the petition to General Conference. He called divestment "a time-honored policy" within The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Steve Sprecher of the Board of Church and Society presents reasons behind the Caterpillar divestment
petition in this file photo. A UMNS
photo by Marta W. Aldrich.

"We will report back to the 2012 General Conference on the progress of our discussions with Caterpillar," he said. "Our church believes strongly in corporate social responsibility."

Winkler thanked the Rev. Tim Bias, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Peoria, Ill., where Caterpillar is based, for his role in opening the dialogue. "Tim is the pastor to important Caterpillar executives and graciously arranged meetings between us," Winkler said.

"I got involved because there had been no conversation between the General Board of Church and Society and Caterpillar prior to the filing of the divestment resolution," Bias said. "One of the values we hold as United Methodists is holy conferencing. If we are to bring transformation to the world, we will do it by building and gaining trust with persons of differing perspectives. We don’t do it by going toe to toe; we do it hand in hand.

"When we sit down and find common ground, we begin a conversation," Bias continued. Through the conversations between the board and Caterpillar, "we have raised the consciousness of the issue of peace in the Middle East and we have found a way to address it together."

"I am very pleased to see the statement from Caterpillar and to see the positive fruits of dialogue," said the Rev. W. Douglas Mills, executive with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns in New York.

"I want to thank Jim Winkler and the General Board of Church and Society for the constructive engagement around this issue. Jim's dialogue with Caterpillar has been and will continue to be challenging to both The United Methodist Church and to companies in which we invest church money.

The Rev. Timothy Bias inquires about dialogue between the Board of Church
and Society and executives at Caterpillar
in this file photo. A UMNS photo by
Marta W. Aldrich.  aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

"By engaging (Caterpillar chief executive) Jim Owen and Caterpillar in this way, Winkler has helped us underscore the value our denomination places on our interreligious relationships coupled with our commitment to social justice."

Other churches act

Recently, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Roman Catholic Dominican Sisters withdrew their shareholder resolution on human rights to be presented at Caterpillar’s annual meeting. They withdrew the resolution in exchange for discussions on the use of the company’s products, in light of Caterpillar’s stated expectations that customers will use its products in an environmentally responsible manner and consistent with international humanitarian law and norms.

Caterpillar’s decision to open dialogue with faith communities is a welcome development, Winkler said.

The 2004 General Conference passed a resolution opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian land, and the agency has worked for the past three years to seek the implementation of General Conference Resolution 312, "Opposition to Israeli Settlements in Palestinian Land." The United Methodist Church opposes continued military occupation, confiscation of Palestinian land, destruction of Palestinian homes and the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements.

"Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land has continued for more than 40 years," Winkler said. "Undeniable misery is experienced every day by Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Our church should not profit from it."

* Information for this report came from Wayne L. Rhodes, director of communications, United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Paul Black, director of communications for The United Methodist Church’s Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference, also contributed to this report.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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