Church group meets Hizbullah, loses meeting here

The Foreign Ministry Thursday canceled a scheduled meeting with a delegation from the American Presbyterian Church because the group met Hizbullah officials in Beirut and even had words of praise for the organization.

Gadi Golan, the head of the ministry's religious affairs bureau, said the decision was made after the ministry was informed of the delegation's meeting with Sheikh Nabil Qauq, a Hizbullah leader in south Lebanon.

Golan said that one of the members of the church's Mideast fact-finding delegation, Rev. Ronald Stone, a retired social ethics professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was quoted on Hizbullah's Al-Manar satellite network as saying, "Relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders."

He also said, "We treasure the precious words of Hizbullah and your expression of goodwill toward the American people."

The 24-member delegation, part of the church's Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which is charged with developing national policy resolutions on the Mideast and other issues, is on a two-week fact-finding trip, paid for by the church, to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.

Golan was slated to meet the delegation on Sunday. "They called this a mission of peace, but if so, why did they meet Hizbullah?" Golan said. "There is no reason for us now to meet them."

Golan said that the ministry intended to meet with the delegation, even though the church, at its annual conference in July, voted to study the idea of divesting itself from Israel, to condemn the security fence, and to continue funding a Philadelphia congregation, Avodat Yisrael, which missionizes among Jews.

Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, chief executive at church headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky, said the Hizbullah visit and comments from delegation members "do not reflect the official position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) on peace in the Middle East," and that they should not be interpreted as lessening its "commitment to continued Jewish-Christian dialogue, Muslim-Christian dialogue, or Jewish-Christian-Muslim dialogue."

Rev. Nile Harper, chairman of the advisory committee, said in Syria, "The occupation by Israel in the West Bank and Gaza must end because it is oppressive and destructive for the Palestinian people."

The ADL, the Union for Reform Judaism , and the American Jewish Committee all came out with sharply worded statements against the meetings.

ADL national director Abraham Foxman said it is "deeply disturbing that leaders of the Presbyterian Church would meet with the leader of a terrorist organization that is directly responsible for attacks against Americans and Israelis, and that has repeatedly denounced America and Israel as enemies of Islam."

"Coming in an atmosphere where interfaith relations between Presbyterians and Jews have been sorely tested by the church's proposal to disinvest from Israel, it is disturbing that the Presbyterian leaders made the irresponsible decision to meet with Hizbullah, an organization whose self-stated goal is the total destruction of the Jewish state and the establishment of Islamic rule over Jerusalem. "It is outrageous that, rather than seeking out moderate voices working for positive change in the Middle East, the Presbyterian leaders decided to seek out the leader of a terrorist organization."