The top officials of the Presbyterian Church (USA) released their second statement regarding the controversial meeting between a PC(USA) sponsored delegation and one of the most infamous terrorist groups in the Middle East, on Oct. 21, 2004. The second letter, which was largely a letter of apology to the irked Jewish community, acknowledged that the delegation’s visit was “misguided at best” and reprehensible.”
"The recent visit of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to the Khiam Detention Center and its meeting with Hezbollah there was misguided, at best. Furthermore, the comments attributed to Presbyterians there, as we understand them, are reprehensible,” the letter read.
The Advisory Committee’s meeting with Hezbollah received widespread condemnation from Jewish leaders worldwide, many of whom threatened to break all ties with the PC(USA).
Much of the criticism was aimed at Ronald Stone, a recent retired Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor, who praised the terrorist group during a press conference that was televised across the Middle East.
Stone apparently praised Hezbollah, despite it’s being on the U.S. Department of State’s list of foreign terrorist organization. Hezbollah, Arabic for “Party of God” is strongly anti-American and is an avowed enemy of the state of Israel.
"We treasure the precious words of Hezbollah and your expression of goodwill toward the American people," Stone said, during the broadcast. "Also we praise your initiative for dialogue and mutual understanding. We cherish these statements that bring us closer to you. 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."
Not surprisingly, Stone’s comments drew a firestorm of criticism from dozens of Jewish community leaders – many of whom had been at odds with the PC(USA) since the denomination’s 216th General Assembly voted to “initiate the process of phased, selective divestment” from corporations contributing to the more destructive aspects of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza,” in early July.
PC(USA) and Jewish leaders met in New York on Sept 28 to come to a joint decision; the meeting, while appropriately diplomatic, did not resolve any issues between the two parties.
Nevertheless, the two groups remained on relatively good standing – until the news of the ACSWP delegation’s Oct. 17 visit with the Hezbollah broke. Since then, the Jewish leaders who met with the PC(USA) officials in New York threatened to unravel whatever progress was made at the Sept. 28 gathering.
In an Oct. 20 letter to Clifton Kirkpatrick – the Stated Clerk - and Rick Ufford-Chase – the Moderator of the denomination’s assembly -, two Reform Jewish leaders who attended that meeting — Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice-president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis — wrote: “There can be no religious justification whatsoever for words that serve to encourage terror and justify terrorism … We hope and pray that you will exercise the moral leadership required at this moment and repudiate these deplorable words spoken in the name of your church.”
The Oct. 21 letter was written as an immediate response to the Jewish leaders’ statement, and largely clarified that the PC(USA) did not approve of any form of terrorism.
“Even when we identify and condemn the occupation as another key source of violence and lack of peace, we in no way condone the terrorism of groups such as Hezbollah, or of individuals or other actors in the region. Terrorism in all of its forms is morally abhorrent and completely inexcusable in our eyes,” they wrote.
The letter also clarified that the advisory group was not authorized by the PC(USA) to make the visit to Hezbollah, even though the group was on a 2-week “fact-collecting” trip to the Middle East funded by the denomination.
“The group’s specific itinerary was not authorized by any of us; in fact, once we learned of it, we asked the group to drop this visit from their plans,” they wrote.
In response, national Jewish leaders and organizations said they were appalled, not only at Stone’s statement, but also at the PC(USA)’s failure to accept responsibility for what had happened.
"You fail to condemn the fact that an official delegation from your church met with a known terrorist entity whose stated enemies are the United States and the state of Israel," leaders of the reformed Jewish movement wrote.
"We are also very troubled by your statement in response," continued the letter, written by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Meanwhile, Stone, reached at his hotel in Jerusalem defensively said that his statement was “blown out of proportion.”
Stone explained that “somebody had to respond” to one of the Hezbollah member’s comments against the U.S.
"Our policy is we are seeking out lots of different voices," on the mission, Stone said. "I did not agree with the sheik's social and political analysis. I condemn terrorism and the [Presbyterian] Church condemns terrorism.
"When you meet Hezbollah on a Sunday afternoon, they're not running around with guns. There are things that Hezbollah does that are a social service, such as health, education and social welfare."
The following is the full text of the Oct. 21 letter:
To Jewish leaders at the New York City meeting on September 28, 2004
We, along with John Detterick, Executive Director of the General Assembly Council, who was unable to be with us in New York, were distressed to learn of the visit of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to the Khiam Detention Center and the meeting with Hezbollah leaders. We were particularly distressed about this, given our meeting with you in New York last month.
The time we spent with all of you in New York moved us very deeply, and we made several commitments as a result of our time together. One was to commit ourselves to a continued dialogue with those of you whom we met on the national level, as well as with our Jewish colleagues at local levels. We were particularly moved by the comments during our meeting about the importance of listening to, respecting, and including the Jewish narrative as we lift up our concern for peace in Israel and the Middle East.
Another commitment we made was to press as hard as possible with our colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA) to investigate and take advantage of any and all pressure points that we might have as a denomination to make our opposition to the use of terror tactics by Palestinian organizations. We are convinced that such possibilities for pressure must exist, and that the only credible stance that we as a denomination can take is to make absolutely clear our conviction that Palestinian violence is never acceptable and that citizens of Israel must be able to live free of the fear of terrorism.
The recent visit of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy to the Khiam Detention Center and its meeting with Hezbollah there was misguided, at best. The group’s specific itinerary was not authorized by any of us; in fact, once we learned of it, we asked the group to drop this visit from their plans. Furthermore, the comments attributed to Presbyterians there, as we understand them, are reprehensible.
As a church, and as individuals, we know at the core of our souls that terrorism, especially terrorism against civilians, is one clear source of the lack of peace in the Middle East. Even when we identify and condemn the occupation as another key source of violence and lack of peace, we in no way condone the terrorism of groups such as Hezbollah, or of individuals or other actors in the region. Terrorism in all of its forms is morally abhorrent and completely inexcusable in our eyes.
Our prayer is for the following. First, that you will continue to work with us to create avenues of communication for that dialogue. Second, that we will find a way to communicate directly about this matter rather than confining ourselves only to what is being communicated through the media. Third, that we as a denomination will find ways to continue our insistence that we side both with Palestinian victims of the occupation and its violence, and with Israeli and Jewish victims of violence and terrorism.
We trust that we have a great deal more to learn, and we believe that our continued relationship with you is critical for that learning to take place.
With faith in our common God,
Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator, 216th General Assembly (2004) of the Presbyterian Church (USA)
Clifton Kirkpatrick, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly
John Detterick, Executive Director, General Assembly Council