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Unity among members of the World Council of Churches? Not in every case, Presbyterians on the ground report

A statement on seeking justice and peace in the Middle East stops short of calling Israel’s actions against Palestinians ‘apartheid’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

World Council of Churches officials hold their final press conference Thursday in Karlsruhe, Germany. (Photo by Albin Hillert/WCC)

LOUISVILLE — World Council of Churches leaders spoke of unity and hope during the hour-long wrap-up press conference for the 11th Assembly Thursday, which can be viewed here.

The WCC agreed to a number of statements, including this one on “Seeking Justice and Peace for All in the Middle East.” While acknowledging that “the expansion of the [Israeli] settlements and the increased military presence that accompanies them have brought more suffering for Palestinian communities,” delegates stopped short of, as the PC(USA)’s 225th General Assembly did earlier this summer, calling Israel’s policies and actions regarding the Palestinian people “apartheid” under international law.

“We are not of one mind in this matter,” the WCC statement says. “We pray that the WCC continues to provide a safe space for its member churches for conversation and collaboration in pursuing truth and working for a just peace among all people of the region.”

The Rev. Philip Woods is World Mission’s associate director for Strategy and Program.

According to the Rev. Philip Woods, associate director for Strategy and Program with Presbyterian World Mission, who attended the 11th Assembly, Presbyterians were “heavily involved” in the debate over whether the Assembly should name the situation in Israel-Palestine as apartheid. Woods said the Rev. Dr. Neal Presa, the moderator of the PC(USA)’s 220th General Assembly (2012) who was elected this week to the WCC’s Central Committee and Executive Committee and as chair of the WCC Finance Committee, “proposed an amendment to the report that would make more explicit the concerns of at least 16 churches represented in the Assembly who had or were willing to name the situation as apartheid.”

Presa’s proposal was not included in the statement, and instead a message “more about the unity of the WCC rather than about the plight of the Palestinian people” was adopted, Woods said. In part, Woods said, that was a response to a call from the Protestant Church in Germany, which said in a speech “they would never accept a statement that included any reference to the situation as apartheid,” according to Woods.

Luciano Kovacs is World Mission’s area coordinator for the Middle East and Europe.

Luciano Kovacs, World Mission’s area coordinator for the Middle East and Europe, said the PC(USA) and the United Church of Christ “worked all week with Palestinian, South African and other partners in strategic ways to push for the Palestinian voices to be heard. There were clear instances when Palestinians who were present felt silenced when attempting to share their experience of living under occupation and an apartheid system.”

“It was an intense week of meetings and messages exchanged,” Kovacs said, “which showed how grassroots ecumenism can support causes of justice.”

Thursday’s press conference

Most officials speaking with reporters on Thursday chose to highlight moments of unity as their main takeaways from the 11th Assembly, which concluded Thursday.

“For the first time in a long while,” said Dr. Agnes Abuom, the WCC Central Committee’s outgoing moderator, “this 11th Assembly provided safe spaces for serious engagement, reflections, prayer, challenging one another [and] encounters.”

“I leave this Assembly more hopeful that we have started a new phase of listening to one another on matters we don’t necessarily agree with,” Abuom said. “But I also leave with some pain. When we mention critical events in human history and people want to nonchalant them, I feel pain.”

“We were hoping people would see us like people saw Christians in the early church: ‘See how they love one another? See how they pray to their Lord? See how they serve their neighbor?’” said Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the outgoing vice moderator of the Central Committee. “I think we have taken some steps in our journey in that direction through so many issues.”

“It’s so fascinating to be together. This is the aim of the ecumenical movement: to discover what it is that unites us and what it is that divides us,” said H.E. Metropolitan the Rev. Dr. Nifon of Targoviste, the other outgoing vice moderator. “As an Orthodox [Christian], I believe we discover wonderful experiences from the way in which Christianity is lived and experienced in various confessions and in various parts of the world.”

“There’s a variety of nuances in Christianity today, and so we need that unity,” he added. “We experience troubles, wars and sufferings. Materialism and secularism and many other isms are against Christianity, and so we need to find ways to help us work together to spread the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ in the world. That’s why the Assembly is a blessing for the whole of Christianity.”

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