Churches Debate Pro-Palestinian Divestment

Porto Alegre, Brazil - A wide-ranging, global gathering of Christian leaders has become a forum for a question that one delegate calls a religious minefield: Should churches use their investment portfolios to protest Israeli policies toward Palestinians?

The debate cuts across ethics, interfaith ties and Holy Land politics — and has taken on an even sharper edge since the Church of England approved a motion for "morally responsible investment" earlier this month. It could lead the church to eventually reshuffle its $1.53 billion in stocks away from companies it considers aiding or profiting from Israeli control of Palestinian territories.

Supporters of pro-Palestinian divestment are now seeking more momentum at the biggest and most diverse Christian gathering in nearly a decade: the World Council of Churches assembly of mainline Protestants, Anglicans and Orthodox churches that together represent more than 500 million followers — and billions of dollars in stock holdings.

The amount the churches hold in companies targeted by the divestment campaign is just a fraction, so any possible action would be mostly symbolic. But organizers hope to raise the movement's profile by carrying it from college campuses to mainstream churches — nearly all Protestant — as a way to pressure Israel into concessions.

Powerful critics stand in the way. Jewish groups are riled by echoes of the anti-apartheid campaign of the 1980s. They call it a one-sided view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and complain it smacks of anti-Semitism. Most evangelical Protestants, meanwhile, sympathize with Israeli policies and some believe that biblical prophecy demands Jewish sovereignty over the entire Holy Land.

"The (Church of England) has chosen to take a stand on the politics of the Middle East over which it has no influence, knowing that it will have the most adverse repercussions on a situation over which it has enormous influence, namely Jewish-Christian relations in Britain," wrote the chief rabbi of Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks, in an article for Friday's edition of the Jewish Chronicle.

Even mainline churches that overwhelmingly condemned Israel's security barrier are divided over whether a stand for divestment is worth poisoning relations with Jews and others. Lord Carey, the former spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, told The Jerusalem Post he was "ashamed to be an Anglican" after the vote by the Church of England, the communion's historic cradle.

"We are calling on churches to move from statements to action," said the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican who heads the Jerusalem-based group Sabeel, one of the most active pro-divestment groups. "But we know this is a religious minefield. We are asking churches — pleading with them — to have the moral courage to do the right thing."

His pitch to the WCC gathering was to a friendly crowd. Last year, the central committee of the WCC-backed "economic pressure" as an acceptable policy tool for its more than 350 member denominations. But its members are still a long way from turning sympathy for Palestinians into any significant economic leverage on Israel.

Most churches studying divestment calls prefer to move cautiously, by starting talks with companies whose products are used in Israeli security operations and other roles, such as Caterpillar Inc., Motorola Inc. and ITT Industries Inc. Divestment — if it occurs at all — is widely seen as the last option.

Many church views on divestment were further clouded by last month's landslide election victory of the Palestinian militant groups Hamas, which calls for Israel's destruction. Even pro-divestment Christian leaders take pains to support Israel's right to exist and reject calls for blanket boycotts on Israeli products. Many churches have property holdings in Israel.

"No one said this would be an easy campaign," Ateek said. "But economic muscle is really our own true weapon. I hope to see the snowball getting bigger this year."

The coming months could offer some clues.

The Church of England will examine whether to sell Caterpillar stock, valued at roughly $4.4 million. Pro-divestment campaigners allege its construction equipment is used to demolish Palestinians homes. Caterpillar says it adheres to all "local, U.S. and international laws and policies" where it sells products.

In May, the Church of Scotland is expected to study possible divestment at its general assembly. The head of the church, the Rev. David Lacy, called the Israeli security barrier an "oppressive sign of distrust and hatred in the birthplace of the son of God" following a trip in November.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) in June plans to review its 2004 declaration to support eventual "phased, selective divestment" of the church's $8 billion portfolio. Some regional Presbyterian groups have urged the church modify or revoke the policy.

"I hope that since churches are taking this so seriously" it has "in some small way — contributed to a decision (by Israeli leadership) that this model of occupation won't work," said the church's top executive, the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick. He is taking part in the WCC conference, which ends on Thursday.

Other churches, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Episcopal Church, favor policies that stress investment in Palestinian development and other measures. The Roman Catholic Church, which is not a member of the World Council of Churches, also does not support divestment appeals.

"This should tell the advocates of divestment that the movement is backtracking," said Rabbi David Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

But it still remains a force being closely watched by Jewish organizations and the Israeli leadership. It's more a battle over impressions than investments, said professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel.

"When you talk about the word `divestment' it's associated with South Africa and the fight against apartheid," said Steinberg, who studies Jewish-Christian relations. "For Israel, it's strictly about casting Israel as a state without legitimacy. They feel some churches are trying to delegitimize Israel as a state."