500 million Christians urged to divest

An organization representing up to half a billion Christians worldwide has encouraged its member churches to divest from companies that participate in "illegal activities" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The central committee of the World Council of Churches, which represents more than 340 Protestant and Orthodox churches in more than 120 countries, announced the decision on Monday, toward the conclusion of the governing body's meeting in Geneva.

It specifically noted the "process of phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations involved in the occupation" now being implemented by the Presbyterian Church (USA). "This action is commendable in both method and manner, [and] uses criteria rooted in faith," the group said in a statement.

While that campaign angered segments of the American Presbyterian community, the WCC's international affairs expert Peter Weiderud told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that its own statement was the result of a "grassroots initiative" from its membership, and was not merely the view of a limited number of senior clergy. The WCC itself noted in another statement that it had chosen to follow a "consensus decision-making model."

The central committee "reminded the council's member churches that 'with investment funds, they have an opportunity to use those funds responsibly in support of peaceful solutions' to the Israel-Palestine conflict," the statement said.

"Multinational corporations have been involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes, and are involved in the construction of settlements and settlement infrastructure on occupied territory, in building a dividing wall which is also largely inside occupied territory, and in other violations of international law being carried out beyond the internationally recognized borders of the State of Israel determined by the Armistice of 1949," the statement continued.

"The WCC governing body encouraged the council's member churches 'to give serious consideration to economic measures' as a new way to work for peace, by looking at ways to not participate economically in illegal activities related to the Israeli occupation. In that sense, the committee affirmed 'economic pressure, appropriately and openly applied,' as a 'means of action.'"

Weiderud noted that the committee had taken into account recent positive developments in the peace process, but, as the body itself stated, "illegal activities in occupied territory continue as if a viable peace for both peoples is not a possibility."

Apparently seeking to preempt criticism of the move as anti-Semitic, the WCC's central committee "framed" its recommendation by "recalling" its statement in 1992 that "criticism of the policies of the Israeli government is not in itself anti-Jewish."

Moshe Fox, minister for public and interreligious affairs at the Israel Embassy in Washington, DC, disagreed.

"While maintaining that this recommendation is neither one-sided nor anti-Jewish, it is clearly both," Fox told the Post on Tuesday.

"At a time when Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in a political process, returning to negotiations, this decision is utterly ill-timed. The WCC is apparently seeking to dovetail on the Presbyterian Church's campaign. But, while the Presbyterian Church is still deliberating, the WCC is charging forward... [but] a boycott of Israel will not bring the Israelis and Palestinians any closer to the path of peace," he added.

Weiderud also said the WCC was unaware of any intimidation of Palestinian Christians by Palestinian terrorists or desecration of Christian holy sites. No churches under Palestinian control were large enough to qualify for membership in the WCC, although the body had indirect contacts with several churches there, he said.

Although the World Council of Churches comprised mostly American and European churches when it was founded in 1948, the WCC's expansion since then has primarily been in South America and southern Asia, Weiderud said.