“You shall love your neighbor as yourself….”
Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19
Our prayers today are with the people of Israel and Gaza as we all hope for an immediate ceasefire to the Hamas-Israel war. We also pray for a lasting solution that provides the people of Gaza with peace and freedom and the people of Israel with security and freedom from violent attack.
The civilians of Gaza, the vast majority with no connection to Hamas or related groups, have suffered the overwhelming brunt of the pain and suffering from the conflict, yet have no voice in their path forward. This must change. The people of Gaza have a right to peace and freedom, and a right to freely choose those who lead and speak for them. The 221st Presbyterian General Assembly (2014) formally recognized this essential human right, approving a resolution calling for “measures to ensure free and fair elections within the Palestinian territories.”
We believe the people of Gaza should have basic freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, and the right to choose their leaders through a genuine democratic process. The international community has been almost completely silent on the rights of the people of Gaza to have fair and open elections, and this has been wrong. These freedoms offer no guarantee of peace, but without them it is difficult to see how prospects for peace can move forward. At Presbyterians for Middle East Peace, we also support an international program for reconstruction efforts in Gaza.
The 2008 General Assembly approved, by an overwhelming voice vote, to become “a voice for the victims of violence in both Israel and Palestine.” The Assembly also said that our denomination would become “nonpartisan advocates for peace.” During this fragile time of ceasefire, can we imagine what an excellent position for ministry we would be in today had the 2014 General Assembly not moved away from this wise and just stance? Instead, we approved Israel-targeted divestment, and lost credibility as genuine peacemakers.
Despite the General Assembly actions in Detroit, it is not too late for the PCUSA to become a builder of bridges instead of an enabler of those who, on both sides of this conflict, would destroy them. At a breakfast held at the 2014 General Assembly, Ghaith Al-Omari, former advisor to the former Palestinian Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, warned the attendees that partisan actions such divestment only fuel the most extreme factions in both Israel and Palestine. He urged the PCUSA to begin building coalitions with and encouraging centrist groups in both Israel and Palestine.
In this moment when the rockets have stopped flying into Israel and the tanks have withdrawn from Gaza, can we not find a way to model the peacemaking ways of Jesus? Can we not build relationships that will empower peacemaking voices in Israel and Palestine, develop ministries that will help the people of Gaza rebuild their lives, and empower efforts to create dialogues between Palestinian and Israeli youth? In other words, can we not do what the PCUSA did so effectively in a place like Northern Ireland where we refused to over-identify with either side in that tragic conflict?
As we pray for the victims of this ghastly conflict and the diplomats who are attempting to stitch together a more lasting peace, let us stop making partisan statements and begin speaking reconciling words that can lead to peace.
The crisis in Northern Iraq
We pray for the people of Iraq now facing brutal and horrifying attacks from the Islamic State (formerly called ISIS or ISIL). Islamic State forces have perpetrated mass executions, beheadings, and other atrocities in both Syria and Iraq, and in recent weeks have engaged in the sectarian cleansing of Iraqi Christians. In the last week over 400,000 Yazidis, an ancient religious sect, have faced the threat of sectarian genocide at the hand of IS and been forced to flee from their homes, with thousands stranded in nearby mountains.
We support President Obama’s decision to direct American military forces to provide humanitarian aid to the threatened Yazidis and military assistance for the protection of the Yazidis and the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Christian mission workers have long been welcome and protected in Iraqi Kurdistan, and several Christian mission efforts are helping with the humanitarian crisis. PCUSA congregations or members wanting to help should contact the Outreach Foundation, which is able to receive gifts in support of the relief work of the National Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Iraq. Checks should be noted “Iraq Relief” and mailed to: The Outreach Foundation, 381 Riverside Drive, Suite 110, Franklin, TN 37064. You can also give online. In addition, the Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse operates a community center near the Kurdish city of Erbil and is on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan providing relief and assistance.
 From the Minutes of the PUCSA General Assembly, 2008: “1. Be a voice for the victims of violence in both Israel and Palestine. We ask PC(USA) members, congregations, committees, and other entities to become nonpartisan advocates for peace. As such, we will not over-identify with the realities of the Israelis or Palestinians. Instead we will identify with the need for peacemaking voices in the midst of horrific acts of violence and terror. 2. Focus our energy on the United States government, demanding that it assume an intensive and unrelenting role as a peacemaker, bringing together the opposing parties in forums where reasonable people can reach reasonable compromises about highly complex issues. 3. Condemn all acts of violence against innocent civilians. We will avoid taking broad stands that simplify a very complex situation into a caricature of reality where one side clearly is at fault and the other side is clearly the victim.”