"Palestinian towns have become large prisons"

( [email protected] ) Aug 19, 2003 04:21 PM EDT

"The WCC and our member churches are extremely concerned about the creation of the so-called security wall," says the director of the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (WCC/CCIA) Peter Weiderud. Speaking at a press briefing at the end of a 12-14 August World Council of Churches' (WCC) staff visit to Jerusalem, Weiderud was referring to the separation wall presently under construction in the West Bank.

The wall is creating "a new political border" that violates international law, he pointed out. "While the government of Israel is negotiating a 'land for peace' formula, the facts on the ground show a different picture." The wall "will turn any Palestinian affected entities into Bantustans - to which Israel can shut its door any time. While barriers and walls are tumbling down or becoming obsolete all over the world, we are experiencing the opposite here."

Weiderud's comments were based on information gathered during the three-day WCC staff visit - in meetings with the Heads of Churches and Christian communities of Jerusalem, President Yasser Arafat and other representatives of the Palestinian Authority, and Ambassador Gadi Golan, head of the religious affairs bureau in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The purpose of the joint CCIA-ACT visit was to listen to church leaders' perspectives on and analysis of the current situation in the region, and their expectations from the WCC in advance of the WCC Central Committee, particularly in regard to ecumenical humanitarian relief efforts, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), and the joint project of an ecumenical centre in Jerusalem. Weiderud and Thor-Arne Prois, director of Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, led the delegation.

In a meeting hosted by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, church leaders expressed concerns over the increasing difficulties of everyday life in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Continued restrictions of movement imposed by Israeli security forces seriously disrupt the activities of churches, schools, and hospitals as well as of Palestinians' daily life; the West Bank separation wall - eight metres high and running 370 kilometres with a 50- to 100-meter security zone on either side - is threatening Palestinian communities with further isolation, they stressed.

"With the security walls, total closures and checkpoints, Palestinian towns have become large prisons festering with frustration," Weiderud says.

Reporting on ACT field visits made before the meeting, Thor Arne Prois confirmed that the humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) is worsening: unemployment has risen to over 70 percent, malnutrition rates are rising, and ongoing restrictions on people's movement continue to have a damaging effect on the community. Concern has also been expressed at increased signs of trauma in children who are growing up under these conditions.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch, H.B. Irineos, expressed deep gratitude to the international ecumenical community and the WCC in particular for their accompaniment of and solidarity with the churches and the Christian community in the region.

Others attending the meeting of church leaders were; H.B. Michel Sabbah, Latin Patriarch; Bishop Aris Shirvanian represented the Armenian Patriarch; Archbishop Aristarchos, General Secretary, Greek Orthodox Patriarchate; Archbishop Dr Amba Abraham, Coptic Orthodox; Archbishop Swerios Malki Mourad, Syrian Orthodox; Bishop Kamal Bathish, Latin Patriarchate;

Bishop Butros Malki, Syrian Catholic; Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, Anglican; Archimandrite Mtanious Haddad, Greek Catholic; Father Athanasios, representing the Custos; Father Anthony, representing the Maronite Bishop; Father Elias, representing the Armenian Catholic Bishop; Father Michael H. Sellors, Inter-Church Committee; Ibrahim Kandalaft, PLO Chairman Advisor, Christian Affairs

Meeting with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, and with Ambassador Gadi Golan in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, delegation members expressed their concern about the difficulties of everyday life in the OPT in general, and about the security wall in particular.

Weiderud notes that "The WCC has repeatedly condemned all acts of terror against civilians in Israel as well as extra-judicial executions and killings of Palestinian civilians." He says that ending the violence means resolving the root cause of the violence: "We are convinced that Israel's military occupation of the Palestinian territories is a major cause of terrorist acts, and that ending this occupation is politically achievable." He emphasizes that the task "is to stand in solidarity with the churches and all those Palestinians and Israelis struggling for an end to the occupation with non-violent means".

The staff delegation will report its observations to the WCC Central Committee, meeting in Geneva 26 August to 2 September 2003.

Other members of the delegation included Salpy Eskidjian, WCC/CCIA programme executive responsible for the Middle East; Leila Dzaferovic, ACT appeals officer for the Middle East; and Yannick Provost, WCC communication