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Salvation and Palestinian Propaganda By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 15, 2009

In a junket that may have cost their churches hundreds of thousands of dollars, 44 U.S. and Canadian Lutheran bishops, with spouses and staff, totaling about 90 people, have just completed a "peace" tour of the West Bank. (A Lutheran news release asserts that no national church agency funds were used, only funds from the bishops' local synods plus some personal funds.) Ostensibly the visit was to examine Lutheran ministries among the Palestinians, although needless to say the number of Lutheran Palestinians is miniscule. If merely seeking ministry with overseas Lutherans, these globetrotting bishops could have visited much larger and more impoverished Lutheran communities in Tanzania, Namibia, or many other places in Africa.

But visiting poor African Lutherans would not have facilitated media attention and opportunities to denounce Israel. Hence, the North American Lutheran delegation, which included half of all the U.S. bishops of the 4.7 million Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), eagerly buzzed from one Palestinian photo op to the next, earnestly "praying" next to Israel's security wall and decrying Israel's supposed misdeeds.  

Hosting the visiting bishops was the Palestinian Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, who routinely mouths pro-Palestinian themes that fault Israel's "occupation" for all misfortunes among Palestinians, without examining troubling Palestinian pathologies. "We need you to help us liberate Israel from the sin of occupation," he implored of the U.S. National Council of Churches in 2007. He then complained about pesty pro-Israel Christians in the U.S. who "believe more in Israel than they do in Jesus.'"

The bishops' Middle East sojourn is part of the Lutherans' "Churchwide Strategy for Engagement in Israel and Palestine." In the parlance of left-leaning mainline church groups, "engagement" in the Middle East always means browbeating Israel and defending Palestinian political goals. One bishop from Denver stated in a Lutheran news release: "I am proud of the commitment of our bishops, and those of the [Canadian Lutherans], to visit this fascinating and troubled region of the world to learn, to support Christian sisters and brothers, and to advocate for peace and justice for all people."

Another California bishop chimed in: "We expect this trip will enable us to grow in our awareness of the reality of life in Israel and Palestine, accompany our [Canadian} brothers and sisters in their witness and service, and become better advocates in our own countries for an end to the ongoing hostilities in the Holy Land." A bishop from Massachusetts readily agreed: "We seek to be advocates for peace in the Middle East. I believe that it is only by the power of God, through the commitment and relationship of people from all the faith traditions in this region, that the hope for peace can be realized, and both Israel and Palestine can benefit from the freedom and security that a shared life of peace would bring."

From the perspective of Lutheran bishops, what does all this envisioned peace and justice look like in the Middle East? Based on the Lutheran bishops' daily blog entries, it seems to mean endless commiseration with Palestinian complaints about Israel, without any open curiosity about Israel's view. The closest the bishops seem to have come to listening to Israelis was visiting the grave of slain Israeli Minister Minister Yitzak Rabin, in recognition of his role in the Oslo Peace Process of the 1990's. Of course, the bishops equitably also visited and placed a wreath at the venerated grave of that other great champion of peace, Yasser Arafat, who smashed the Oslo accord by fomenting the intifada against Israel.

The bishops listened and nodded gravely as Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayad told them that the Palestinian people "are tortured by decades of occupation" and that he'd like for Lutherans to "do more" to help. Afterwards, the chief of staff to the Palestinian president warned the bishops that Israel is targeting Palestinians Christians to leave the West Bank. Rafiq Husseini repeated the usual refrain that Christians once were over 20 percent of Palestinians but now are only 1.5 percent, without evidently noting that Islamist pressure plays a role in Christian departures, and that declining Christian populations are endemic to all Middle Eastern Arab countries, not just "Palestine." Yet it seems the Lutheran bishops, like most mainline U.S. church officials, have little interest in Christian minorities in the Middle East, unless they are victimized by Israel.    

The bishops mournfully planted olive trees and prayed near the infamous Israeli-built security wall, which has effectively halted Palestinian suicide bombers, but which the Religious Left prefers to portray as a hateful symbol of Israeli torment. The bishops' blog lamented that the wall "cuts through Palestinian agricultural lands, making way for Israeli settlements to be constructed," without ever noting why the wall was built.  Presiding U.S. Lutheran Bishop Mark Hanson wailed: "We will cry out songs of lament for all people, and we will plant olive trees here as a sign of commitment for the generations to come...to see olive trees, not walls."

A local Lutheran pastor told the attentive bishops: "I think we are heading with full power to a fully developed apartheid system. This war on Gaza had many goals, but one important goal is to make the two-state solution not viable. A two-state solution made sense, but what is happening in Gaza makes this impossible." The bishops also planted olive trees at a Palestinian village, trying to redeem the "devastated landscape" where the "Palestinian-owned hillside was strewn with debris reportedly dumped there by the [Israeli] settlers." They also prayed there at the gate of the wall, under the ominously "watchful eye of an Israeli police crew." And they heard students at a Lutheran school speak "frankly of their anger with Israel for what they said was an overly violent assault on the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip."

Probably these sojourning Lutherans learned nothing during their Middle East junket that did not already confirm their preexisting biases. Neither these bishops nor their colleagues from other liberal denominations ever similarly jetted in by the dozens to share similar solidarity with other isolated Christians in Muslim countries, such as Sudan, Pakistan, or Iran, where Israel cannot be cast as the villain. Nor did the plight of the persecuted in communist countries ever ignite such a mass migration of prelates to investigate and commiserate. Evidently the search for peace and justice has its limits.   

Since Bishop Younan and his flock survive tenuously as a vulnerable minority among their Muslim neighbors, their parroting of Palestinian talking points is at least understandable as a survival mechanism. The eagerness of American bishops to mindlessly repeat those same predictable anti-Israel themes is indefensible. But perhaps Religious Left groupthink is as intimidating as Palestinian terror.

Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.

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