Churches Sponsoring Advocacy Days on US Policies in Africa and the Middle East

Jan 25, 2003 11:41 AM EST

Church-related advocates working for just US policies in Africa and the Middle East are sponsoring an ecumenical gathering in Washington, DC, February 23-26, to pressure Congress and the Bush administration to develop more just and peaceful policies in those critical regions of the world.

On Sunday night, before the official program begins, participants can view the US premiere of a video, "Judgement Day," that compares the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict with the previous struggle for liberation and democracy in South Africa. According to the Cinema Guild, its USA distributor, the video "makes a universal statement about war and the effects of war on young people on both sides of the conflicts," through the experiences of two young South Africans who discuss how they were brutalized in the South African conflict and who explain their current search for healing.

After tracing the 1967 occupation by Israel of the Palestinian territories and examining the viewpoint of the Israeli settler communities, the video examines the consequences and perspectives of concerned Israeli citizens and Palestinians affected by the current situation of "closure" and "collective punishment." According to the distributor, the video "interweaves these two stories, providing reference points in South Africa's history of apartheid that resonate with the Israeli/Palestinian conflict today."

Enormous challenges and crise

The program will run on parallel tracks with a wide range of speakers, issue briefings, and advocacy training workshops. "At a time when Africa faces enormous challenges and crises, many rooted in decisions made by powerful outside forces and institutions, U.S. priorities toward the continent are glaringly inadequate," said the Rev. Leon Spencer, director of the Washington Office on Africa. The Africa track will focus on issues such as HIV/AIDS, debt, African conflicts--and related issues such as landmines and child soldiers, and economic justice.

"The Middle East remains an area of concern for the U.S. Christian community as the ongoing tragedy of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the situation with Iraq continue to spiral out of control," according to the Rev. Mark Brown of the Lutheran Office on Government Affairs. Presentations will focus on U.S. policies and the role of the religious community in shaping that policy for the common good.

"There will be opportunities to speak with your senators and representatives in Congress or their key foreign policy staff on Africa and the Middle East," according to Tom Hart, director of the Episcopal Church's Washington Office for Governmental Relations. "There will also be common times for fellowship and networking, a keynote address and reception, and a special ecumenical service of worship for participants and the public."

Convinced that the advocacy approaches share similarities across several regions, several of the key church-related agencies joined to plan the event--including the Washington Office on Africa, the Africa Faith and Justice Network, the Stand with Africa Campaign, Churches for Middle East Peace, Church World Service, and Peaceful Ends through Peaceful Means, an ecumenical coalition of churches working for peace in Palestine and Israel.

The meetings will use two prominent local churches, National City Christian Church and Luther Place Memorial Church, as well as the United Methodist Building near the Capitol which is used by many churches for their government relations offices.

A wide range of issues

The morning plenaries on February 24 will feature a speech by Rogate Mshana of the World Council of Churches on justice issues facing Africa and one on a vision for Middle East peace by the Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church and director of the International Centre in Bethlehem. The afternoon will be dedicated to a series of policy workshops.

The Africa track workshops will deal with funding and access to treatment for AIDS; debt, "an unfinished agenda"; the continuing civil conflict in the Sudan; and economic justice--African development versus the US trade agenda.

The Middle East workshops will deal with interfaith relations; an update on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the facts and politics of the Israeli settlements; religious and social dimensions of Jerusalem; evangelical Christians and the Christian Right; an update on Iraq; and peacemaking programs in congregations and communities. The day will end with a worship service for peace. The Rev. John McCullough, executive director of Church World Service, will preach and music will be provided by the Saint Camillus Multicultural Choir and the National City Gospel Choir.

Messages for Congress

Tuesday's plenary will feature an address by Rep. Maxine Waters of California on alternative visions for US policy in Africa, joined by Imani Countess of the American Friends Service Committee. In the afternoon, both Africa and Middle East tracks will discuss the status of issues before Congress and the Bush administration and preparing participants for advocacy visits on the Hill.

On Wednesday participants will fan out across Capitol Hill to bring the churches' message on justice and peace to both the House and Senate. Participants will make use of these congressional contacts after they return home, activating and resourcing their church advocacy networks to pressure policymakers on these key Middle East and Africa issues. To support those efforts, the African track is offering advocacy training workshops, grassroots organizing, and one on "engaging the media."

By James Solheim