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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

WCC International Peace Conference, Amman, Jordan-Opening Address

Opening address

by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia at the
International Peace Conference
Amman, Jordan, 17-21 June 2007

Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences and Graces, Your Excellencies, Fellow Clergy, Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Greetings to each and every one of you in the Name of the One who is the Prince of Peace.

It is our shared privilege to be together because we are here on behalf of churches around God’s world. Here with the precious hopes of many. Here for that fragile yet unbreakable hope -- so evident in this region -- the hope of peace.

It is a singular privilege, as general secretary of the World Council of Churches, to open the work of this conference. In the next three days we will be taking up challenges that will test our commitment and our capacity in extraordinary ways. The journey we begin here will take us onto unknown ground. The road may be rough, the risks high.

Yet we are starting the journey from a good place for an international initiative that must be rooted in the Middle East, and that place is Jordan. Let us begin with an affirmation of where we are by paying our respects to our hosts, His Majesty King Abdullah, the government and the people of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and its churches. We are in their good hands. They have facilitated the possibility to have this conference in Jordan and we thank them most sincerely.

Jordan’s role, its historic role, has been to seek the way of peace even when that has been against the odds. So it makes sense for us to be here. At a time more urgent than we could have feared, we are here to seek the way to peace against the odds, as well.

We are here with voices ringing in our ears that the situation is now completely “hopeless”. The chair beside you may be empty because our conferees from Gaza could not come. We must keep them in our prayers instead, along with all the people of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Among them, not far from here, an urgent crisis has seized the attention of the world, and our attention too, but at the same time we are called to envision something more distant – that thing called peace, a just and sustainable resolution of the conflict and of its endemic crises. Therefore, we must not reduce our actions to immediate interventions without a plan for the future, nor can we simply make long-term proposals that ignore the present suffering of those who live under occupation or are affected by it.

The situation is grave -- unending loss of life, displacement of persons, violations of human rights, humiliation of one people by another, degrading perpetrator as well as victim. Injustice is deeply rooted in the land we call ‘Holy’. Now new injustices have made the region a battlefield as well, inflaming passions and arousing fears around the world.

What is our response? As people of faith we have no alternative. We are here because there is no alternative. Our response must be to mobilize the larger ecumenical family around the imperative of a just peace. Our alternative to oppression and violence is to serve the cause of peace as an act of faith in Christ who is our Peace.

Churches around the world are waking up. They are impatient to see the end of occupation and eager for real progress toward peace. That you have come from six continents is a sign of their resolve.

Our history has prepared us to meet this challenge. The churches put Middle East peace on the WCC agenda for the first time in 1948. 60 years of discernment in WCC governing bodies has sharpened policies and tested us against a difficult objective.

The World Council of Churches believes that negotiating a just peace under the rule of law is the strongest option for ensuring the well-being and security of both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. This conviction has only grown through 40 years of illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. In making policy, the WCC is attentive to those who are suffering, recognizes UN resolutions as the basis for peace, and is watchful that the Geneva Conventions determine the occupying power’s responsibilities in the meantime. Our main positions are, in headline style:

That Palestinians have the right of self-determination and the right of return;

while Israel and its legitimate security needs are recognized, as are the real threats experienced among the Jewish people.

That the life and witness of local churches guides churches worldwide in advocacy for peace.

That Jerusalem must be an open, inclusive and shared city in terms of sovereignty and citizenship

That settlements are illegal, as is their expansion;

That the Separation Barrier is a grave breach of international law and must be removed from occupied territory.

The WCC supports a two-state solution where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side within secure, internationally recognized borders as per UN Security Council resolutions.

We support groups on both sides working for reconciliation and peace,

and condemn violence in all its forms, whether perpetrated by the State of Israel inside Occupied Palestinian Territory or by Palestinian armed groups inside the State of Israel.

Finally, that peace in Israel and Palestine is inseparable from international peace.

These hopes are real even if they have not yet been fulfilled. We pray that they are secure with us, for the sake of those who suffer. We know that our ecumenical witness can be much more effective, and must be more effective.

In pondering our unmet potential one thing stands out. You will hear in the course of the conference examples of what churches have accomplished through advocacy for peace in various places.

Despite these many actions for peace, however, when it comes to this conflict the ecumenical family still lives in a house divided. We have often indulged ourselves in lesser arguments, while the greater prize of peace-making has not received our full strength. We have lived in the luxury of disunity, while the necessity of resolving conflict has gone begging.

In terms of mobilizing for peace we must confess that we, as a family, have displayed insufficient solidarity with the Palestinian Christian community and with the peoples in conflict.

So today the Gospel is calling us as co-workers in God’s project of hope. 1st Peter insists that we be ready to give account for that Hope which is within us. This we do by addressing three imperatives for bold prophetic witness:


The ethical and theological imperative for a Just Peace

The ecumenical imperative for unity in action

The Gospel imperative for costly solidarity.

These are the fundamental ingredients for the bold prophetic action that is required of us.
The ethical and theological imperative for a just peace:

We believe that peace will only prevail if it is built on justice.

As Christians, our specific contribution lies in bringing spiritual, theological and ethical perspectives to bear on the conflict. This is especially critical in a conflict such as this, which at times appears religious in nature but is in fact a struggle over land and identity. Also, where misuse of religion has become a part of the problem, the religious community has an obligation to be part of the solution.

Justice presupposes the existence of a partner. When the prophet Micah calls us to “do” justice, it is not unilaterally, by ourselves. It is with the “other”. Solutions must involve the people most directly affected. The ethical and theological perspectives we bring challenge the dead ends of imposed solutions, of using military force and of victory to those with the most arms and the most powerful allies.

This imperative of just peace means that we must measure all peace proposals against the precepts of biblical justice. Here, we have grounds for a most productive engagement with society and governments. We are concerned for all peoples and all nations. Indeed, the WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre last year called us to strive to be ‘neighbours to all’.

It is our understanding today that compliance with the relevant international laws is the best existing approximation of the demands contained in biblical justice.

To test that important fact, let us remember the tenets of biblical justice. They guarantee the rights of all people and are profoundly relational between peoples. Therefore:

1) A peace proposal must promote the unity of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for freedom

2) A proposal must embrace Israeli aspirations for a peaceful coexistence with all their neighbours in the Middle East.

3) Peace must work to bring life in dignity to all the peoples of the region.

4) A peace proposal will respect the religious diversity in the region

5) A just peace will first secure the interests of the people here and not the interests of external powers.

The ethical and theological imperative of a just peace is a necessary voice in a conflict where hope has eroded and where the powers of this world push us to think that we are powerless to face the complexity of the situation.

Rather, we are co-workers with Christ in his project of hope. Our faith compels us to be artisans of peace with justice and to accompany those who are building the peace that God wills for all peoples. This commitment is not based on a particular political ideology but springs from the very nature of faith in Jesus Christ and belongs to the Church of the Prince of Peace.
The ecumenical imperative for unity:

In all that we do and all that we are, we must work with and respond to each other. For the WCC, this means working with, and responding to, the needs and vision of our member churches. Unity is both our purpose and our methodology.

However, at this historic moment, we must confess and admit that the ecumenical family is all too often a house divided with respect to the Israel- Palestine conflict. We have not achieved the necessary degree of unity in word, thought and deed to be effective witnesses for a just peace. We must unify our thinking about the root causes of the conflict. We must address our differences about the kind of solidarity that is required. We must address theological differences that become an alibi for inaction. While we sit divided, the situation seems to be spiralling out of control and pushing the Middle East towards unbridled chaos. The violence can further polarize a world already torn by fear and anger.

We must engage each other theologically and ethically in order to embrace a justice based approach that honours real concerns about growing anti-Semitism while addressing the urgent need to end the occupation and build a just peace. It will take hard theological work to address extremism. It is painful to acknowledge that adherents to the Christian faith such as the so-called Christian Zionists, work directly against our vision of peace. At the same time, we will strengthen our inter-faith approach. To tackle divisions and conflicts, we must insist on inclusive theology in our ecumenical witness and a unified approach.

In addressing the Israel Palestine conflict, we cannot and will not act alone. This very meeting is a witness to God’s call to unity. We all know that the call to common action, coordination, cooperation and collaboration does not mean that we all think with one mind or that we will do exactly the same things. We understand through long ecumenical experience the gift of diversity and the “variety of gifts” that make the ecumenical movement so strong. At the same time, there must be “unity in all our diversity” if we are to be more effective than we have been in facing the challenge of just peace.
The gospel imperative for costly solidarity

In confronting the 3rd imperative -- costly solidarity -- we are reminded of St Paul’s image of the body: “we are one body and all are members of it…if one suffers all suffer “ (1 Cor 12: 15…). In this light, let us recognize and confess our failure to have adequately and faithfully support the Christians of the Middle East, particularly during this last half century.

The harsh truth is that one of the invisible victims of the occupation is the viability of the Palestinian Christian Community. In the first half of the 20th century, Palestinian Christians represented 25% of the population of historic Palestine. Now due to migration as a result of the occupation, Palestinian Christians are less than 2% of the population of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. We cannot accept this trend, nor can we let it continue.

In the very place where our faith was born, the Christian community must be viable. We must also safeguard the role that local Christian presence and witness will play in a just solution to the conflict.

Christians continue to witness for a just peace based on active but non-violent resistance to injustice and oppression. In their witness, the Christians of the Middle East show us models and possibilities for inter-religious cooperation and dialogue in the service of peace

Although under many pressures, the Christian community continues to have key roles in Palestine and in the Middle East. It maintains educational and health services available to all. The values shared through its institutions contribute to the building of a pluralistic, secular, democratic society that promotes human rights and ensures the full and equal participation of both men and women.

We see the unique contribution of the Christian Community of the Middle East and the ecumenical model of listening to and responding to the leadership of the local churches revealed in the crucial role played by the Middle East Council of Churches since its inception. All of us gathered here are indebted to and seek to build upon the faithful witness of the MECC in Christian witness for a just peace in Israel Palestine. In the work of MECC we see that Christian service with refugees, solidarity with churches, inter-religious dialogue for humanitarian service and peace and prophetic witness have laid the strong foundation on which we can build renewed efforts for international ecumenical action. In this we are clear: there can be no effective ecumenical action that does not take the local and regional role of the churches into consideration seriously.

We focus on the role of Christians not only because they are our family but also because our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters insist that the presence of Christians is essential for a just resolution of the conflict and for post-conflict reconciliation that is needed for active co-existence and thriving together.

If Christians were to disappear as effective witnesses within Arab societies, their unique contribution towards open and democratic states would be lost. Many Muslims attest to the importance of Christians for the kind of pluralistic societies they seek.

We are called here to costly solidarity, not passive concern. Real engagement will put the Palestinian Christian community and, on a larger scale, the Christians in the Arab world, at the center of our prayers and witness.

The call to solidarity reminds us of what the preacher in Ecclesiastes wrote: “Let’s together recall that two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help….A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4: 9-12).

These three imperatives must guide the work of this conference: the ethical imperative for a just peace, the ecumenical imperative for unity in action, and the Gospel imperative for costly solidarity. The tool we have been given for our prophetic witness by the Central Committee is the Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum, the goals of which are: “to catalyze and co-ordinate new and existing church advocacy for peace, aimed at ending the illegal occupation in accordance with UN resolutions, and demonstrate its commitment to inter-religious action for peace and justice that serves all the peoples of region.”

The Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum will build on past initiatives and create new ones. The Forum will bring a new opportunity for coordination and collaboration in both the ongoing and the innovative actions we undertake. The Forum will be a place where unity meets prophetic witness. We are expecting to work together more dynamically, to mobilize members of the ecumenical movement not yet involved. We expect to work on different fronts at the same time.

The forum is an open, permanent and urgent invitation to the widest possible circle of ecumenical partners to move forward in new ways. Ecumenical learning has taught us to listen to the local churches and those most affected in any conflict or crisis. We have listened and we have been asked to accompany the churches here. This we have partially done through the EAPPI. We have been asked to help facilitate cooperation and coordination and communication. This we have begun through the Jerusalem Inter-church Center. We have issued many statements and minutes and declarations speaking to the conflict and calling for peace. We are now told that the time for statements is past. The local churches and ecumenical organizations are saying: No more words without deeds. We need actions.

They need and want us to work together in new and bold ways for Peace with Justice. That is what the forum is designed to do! That is why you are here to help. Let us now turn to the work at hand and begin to launch this project of hope.


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