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Historic black Methodist church delegation visits Holy Land

Delegates from historic African-American Methodist churches confer in the Holy Land. Photo by Lesley Crosson, Church World Service.  









By Lesley Crosson*
Nov. 14, 2006 | ORLANDO (UMNS)

A delegation of leaders from historic African-American churches who just returned from Jerusalem and the Holy Land says conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank painfully echo the injustices suffered by people of color during South Africa's apartheid era and during the pre-civil rights era in America.

Black church leaders in the delegation, which included representatives from three Methodist denominations - the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church - now are vowing to work with their communions and congregations, the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faith communities, politicians and Palestinians in the Diaspora to focus attention on the deteriorating situation in the Holy Land.


Bishop Aris (left), Armenian Patriarchate Ecumenical Officer for Jerusalem, speaks
to the Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor and chief executive for Church World Service. Photo by Lesley Crosson, Church World Service.

The Oct. 27-Nov. 3 trip was hosted by the global humanitarian agency Church World Service, and the delegation was led by the Rev. John L. McCullough, a United Methodist pastor and CWS executive director.

Delegation members reported their findings Nov. 9 in Orlando at the combined General Assembly of Church World Service and the National Council of Churches - an annual meeting of leaders from 35 mainline Christian denominations.

On a visit to the Israeli-built barrier now separating Palestinian residents in the West Bank from residents in Israel-controlled Jerusalem, AME Bishop E. Earl McCloud Jr. said, "I'm surprised by the blatant attempt of Israelis to separate themselves. I've also been on the backside of fear of black people, and it makes me sad to see this wall and to hear so many say this wall has been built with money I have sent to the U.S. government in tax dollars."

Supporters call the nearly 26-foot-high wall portion of the barrier, which in some places runs through the home sites and farms of Palestinians, a "separation barrier." Palestinians alternately referred to it as the "apartheid wall" or the "segregation wall."

The controversial 400-mile-plus West Bank barrier is marked with protest slogans left by visitors, including a fading stencil of the United Methodist Cross and Flame symbol.

Supporters say the barrier is necessary to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian suicide bombing in public places. Opponents say the barrier violates international law, is an illegal effort to annex Palestinian land and severely restricts the normal life movements of Palestinians who live in the area.
"I can understand Israelis concern about security. That's a valid concern for anyone, even though there have been very few incidents that truly threaten their security. But when you take a wall that separates families, that keeps people from their land, that causes immense hardship, that is overkill and there is no justification for that wall," said Bishop Louis Hunter of the AME Zion Church.

The 12-member delegation met with heads of the region's oldest Orthodox and Latin Catholic churches and with Anglican, Lutheran, and Jewish faith leaders and government officials. The group also conferred with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry representative Shmuel ben Shmuel.


The 400-mile-plus West Bank barrier is marked with protest slogans left by visitors. Photo by Lesley Crosson, Church World Service. 

Linked to the discussion of the oppression of the mostly-Christian community in Jerusalem was the threat to the survival of a Christian presence in the Holy Land, where Arab Christians and Palestinian Christians have lived for 2,000 years since the earliest Christian communities.

Bishop Aris, the Armenian Patriarchate Ecumenical Officer for Jerusalem, called upon Christians to "unify in the common cause of maintaining the holy places of Jerusalem for people of all faiths." Aris said the Christian community represents less than 1.5 percent of the population in the region.

"If the current situation continues it may well result in the extinction of the Christian presence in the Holy Land and seriously endanger continued collaboration amongst the three Abrahamic traditions represented there," McCullough observed.

"The mostly Palestinian Christian community is facing a period of intense crisis because of the expanded separation wall and restrictions on the ability of Palestinians to travel from the West Bank into Jerusalem," he said. "Israeli security and defense policies also seem to unfairly infringe upon the churches, including the effective conduct of their affairs, the nurturing of their members and the fulfillment of their ministries."

In a Nov. 2 meeting with the delegation Abbas shared his views on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. "We should have our own state within the borders outlined in the 1967 agreement," Abbas said. "In the past, Palestinians owned 95 percent of Palestine. The share now is 22 percent."

Abbas said the international siege over the past 10 months has increased the suffering of people living in occupied Palestine, "with invasions every day, fatalities and increased demolitions of houses. We recognize the right of Israelis to live, but we also want them to recognize our right to live safely within our own borders."

Emphasizing the need to draw more worldwide attention to the crisis in the region, His Beatitude Michel Sabbah, the Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, told the delegation, "The conflict is not just the business of Palestinians and Israelis. It is the business of every Christian whose obligation is to witness justice, equality and love for all, not just for a chosen few."

The severely limited freedom and discrimination against Palestinian Christians make social and economic development impossible. "In the political arena," Sabbah said. "I think that we have no place on the agenda and we do not count."

Delegates vowed to try to change that. Bishop Ronald M. Cunningham of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church said he is "prepared to become a part of a prophetic ministry to bring this situation to the forefront and to be a part of the search for a solution."

McCloud pledged to look "for ways to positively and dramatically impact this situation. We're going to work with Church World Service. We're going to work with the Congressional Black Caucus. We're going to work with the ecumenical leadership. We've got to bring attention to this in America."

Other members of the delegation included the Rev. Tyrone Pitts, chief executive, Progressive National Baptist Convention; the Rev. A. Wayne Johnson, chief executive, National Missionary Baptist Convention of America; the Rev. George T. Brooks Sr., National Baptist Church of America; the Rev. Charles Mock, executive secretary, National Baptist Convention USA; and David Weaver and Cheryl Dudley, CWS staff.

*Crosson is the media relations officer for Church World Service and she accompanied the delegation.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or

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