Three of the top Presbyterian Church (USA) officials released a statement on Oct. 20, in an attempt to mend its strained relationship with the Jewish community. The statement, which reaffirmed the PC(USA)’s desire to remain in Christian-Jewish dialogue, was largely a disavowal of the comments made by members of a Presbyterian delegation that met with a group of Palestinian terrorists on Oct. 17.
“A group of Presbyterians currently visiting the Middle East has received media attention by international press, as well as reporters in the region about their visit with Hezbollah leaders in South Lebanon,” the statement began.
According to two national Jewish organizations, the PC(USA)’s meeting with the terrorist group Hezbollah “lent legitimacy to what American government officials call the “A-Team” of global terrorists” and delivered a “blow to peace efforts in the region."
The groups specifically criticized one of the Presbyterian delegation members – Ronal Stone, a professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary – for saying: “As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.”
The Jewish leaders called on the PC(USA) to “repudiate immediately” the delegation’s actions.
The PC(USA) leaders who signed the Oct. 20 statement, heeded to the advice by clarifying that “the visit to Hezbollah and the comments on that occasion by members of this Presbyterian group do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on peace in the Middle East.”
The contentious visit by members of the denomination’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) comes at a time of heightened tensions between the PC(USA) and the Jewish community. The PC(USA) had been at odds with several Jewish leaders for the recent PC(USA) General Assembly decision to “divest” from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Jewish leaders held talks in New York last month with Presbyterian officials over the divestment policy but reached no accord.
The two-week trip of the Presbyterian delegation is due back in the States on Oct. 29. The entire trip was paid for by the PC(USA).
The following is the full text of the statement, as signed by the General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, General Assembly Council Executive Director John Detterick and General Assembly Moderator Rick Ufford-Chase, is as follows:
“A group of Presbyterians currently visiting the Middle East has received media attention by international press, as well as reporters in the region about their visit with Hezbollah leaders in South Lebanon. The Presbyterian group consists of members of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy (ACSWP) and staff support for the committee. ACSWP is an advisory committee that develops social witness policy for the PC(USA), which it in turn recommends to the General Assembly for action.
“So far, the group’s itinerary has included stops in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. At the request of church partners, the group visited the Khiam Detention Center in South Lebanon, a former Israeli prison now controlled by Hezbollah, a group that has been associated with terror attacks.
“The visit to Hezbollah and the comments on that occasion by members of this Presbyterian group do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on peace in the Middle East. The reports of this visit should not be interpreted in any way as lessening our deep commitment to continued Jewish-Christian dialogue, Muslim-Christian dialogue, or Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue.
“The 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (USA) called “terrorism — whether state, group, or individual — immoral because it wrongfully and deliberately attacks innocent civilians,” and is “a dead-end alternative to a negotiated settlement of the conflict.”
“We pray regularly for all those in the Middle East who live with the constant threat of violence. The Presbyterian Church (USA) continues to work for a just peace for all peoples, including Israelis and Palestinians.”