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August 12, 2013 8:58 am

Church Leaders Condemn Israel, but not Syria, Showing Clear Double Standard

avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Presbyterian Church Assembly. Photo: Screenshot.

Why is it that American religious leaders who have gotten so worked up about the Arab-Israeli conflict speak in such muted tones about the Syrian Civil War?

What is going on here?

On July 31, 2013, a group of religious leaders issued a letter to the Obama Administration expressing grief over the conflict in Syria. The mournful letter reports that more than 100,000 Syrians have died as a result of the conflict, and that close to 6 million people have been driven from their homes.

The authors call for a humanitarian (but not a military) response to the conflict and beg the Obama Administration to refrain from “the provision of military assistance to forces involved in the conflict in Syria,” because to do so “will only further escalate an already brutal war.”

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All this is reasonable enough, but compare this letter about Syria with another one sent just a few months before about the Arab-Israeli conflict. This letter, sent to Congress on Oct. 5, 2012, called on Congress to investigate foreign aid to Israel, asking that they determine whether or not the Jewish state is entitled to American money in light of alleged human rights abuses against the Palestinians.

And unlike the letter to the Obama Administration about Syria, this letter includes a long bill of particulars to support an indictment against Israel. An appendix accompanying the letter accuses Israel of killing civilians, using tear gas to “suppress political protest,” the use of white phosphorous and flechette shells against civilian targets, and of restricting Palestinian movement.

Of course, neither the letter nor the accompanying appendix detail any of the manifest crimes perpetrated by Palestinian leaders against the Israelis or the people they govern in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. No, the authors only listed Israel’s sins, not the Palestinians.

And when the religious leaders weighed in on the Syrian Civil War, the authors limited themselves to expressions of grief.

Grief, but no outrage over reports of the use of chemical weapons by both the rebels and the Assad regime.

Grief, but no outrage over the massacres perpetrated by both the Assad regime and the Islamist rebels who together have created millions of refugees.

Grief, but no outrage over the public beheadings and executions that have shown up on youtube.

Grief but no outrage over the desecration of corpses.

Grief, but no outrage over the kidnappings of Christian clergy in the country.

The murder, mayhem and malevolence exhibited by both sides of the conflict are passed over by many of the same people who have excoriated Israel (but not the Palestinians) over much less.

The difference in tone and content of these two letters is simply remarkable, particularly in light of the disparity of violence between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Syrian civil war. More people have died in the Syrian civil war over the past two years than have died in the past several decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Signers

Readers might ask if it’s fair to compare the text of the two letters given that the first letter had only 15 signatures and the second letter had 24.

But if one looks at the list of signatories, one will find a core group of signatories that includes seven leaders from five mainline churches whose national assemblies have, to varying degrees, targeted Israel for condemnation. These churches included the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Disciples of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

Representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation also signed both letters. The two Quaker-related institutions, have like mainline churches, been particularly vocal in their criticism of Israel and highly reluctant to criticize Arabs and Muslims.

This reality played itself out in the two letters.

Success of Palestinian Christians

The difference in the tone of these two letters highlights just how successful Palestinian Christians have been in their effort to enlist churches and para-church institutions in the United States to their cause ,while Christians in Syria, for one reason or another, have not.

It’s reasonable to think that the Syrian Christians don’t want to make themselves targets by enlisting foreign churches into the propaganda war over what is happening in Syria.

The distorted witness offered by American religious leaders about the Arab-Israeli conflict is part of a bigger problem.

Let’s face it. Israel and the West Bank have become theme parks for privileged activists from the U.S. and Europe who have the time, energy, and money to spend to travel to Holy Land in pursuit of “human rights” and some nightlife. They can stand in solidarity with Palestinians without much risk and have a pretty good time.

Traveling to Syria is a much more difficult and dangerous.

Instead of confronting this problem and correcting for it, American religious leaders have contributed to it.

For example, the World Council of Churches has created an Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine/Israel that allows privileged classes from the United States and Europe to take up residence in the West Bank for three months at a time, have their picture taken at evil Israeli checkpoints and home demolitions, and then return home and play the hero before their local congregations. They do not, however, go to places like Sderot, or mourn with Israeli victims of Palestinian violence. (It’s an ugly display of narcissism that I’ve written about before.)

The phenomenon is not restricted to the WCC. A few years ago, Margaret Payne, a now-retired bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (a denomination that signed both the letters described above), traveled on a “fact-finding” trip to the Middle East as part of her denomination’s witness about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Upon her return she appeared on a radio show recorded in Washington, D.C. in which she made a number of false statements, asserting for example, the security barrier “completely” surrounded Bethlehem. The host challenged her on this assertion and she repeated it.

And when she was further challenged on this and other factual errors, Payne essentially said to CAMERA, “Get lost.” Payne was an expert, you see, a member of her denomination’s “ready bench,” an institution charged with educating Lutherans about the realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Who was CAMERA to tell her that she got it wrong?

She had been on a highly publicized trip to the Holy Land and the last thing she was expected to do was provide accurate testimony about the Arab-Israeli conflict. She was supposed to repeat what the Palestinian Christians told her. And that’s what she did.

This process has been going on for years and its going to be a while before these churches get around to providing detailed testimony about what is happening in other countries in the region.

It may never happen. But if it does, let’s hope and pray that these churches are more responsible and accurate in their testimony and prophetic witness than they have been about Israel.

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