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Step up contacts between faiths in Middle East, church delegation

A World Council of Churches (WCC) delegation to the Middle East has urged a stepping up of talks between Christians, Jews and Muslims to help promote a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue that it sees as the root of the violence in the region.

"We need to speak truthfully with each other now," delegation leader the Rev. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Conference of European Churches, told a 16 August press conference in Geneva after the return of the group that visited Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah.

"We need to talk about talk about the future meaning of justice in this situation," said de Clermont, who also heads the Protestant Federation of France. The delegation included Roman Catholic Archbishop Bernard-Nicolas Aubertin of Tours in France and WCC staff member Marilia Alves-Schuller

Aubertin said his presence in the delegation was "a very important sign" that different denominations were working together on the Middle East. The Catholic Church is not a member of the WCC, which groups more than 340 churches, mostly Anglican, Protestant and Orthodox, but it cooperates with the council on a number of issues.

WCC general secretary, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, said there needed to be a coordinated approach by churches to the situation in the Middle East, "as broad as possible including what we can do with the Roman Catholic Church".

De Clermont noted: "The heart of this crisis is not Hezbollah; it is the conflict between Israel and Palestine that is at the heart of this crisis. It is the occupation of the Palestinian territories, it is the absence of the will to get round the negotiating table."

The delegation left for Lebanon on 9 August, and visited Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah but was unable in the time available to visit affected areas in southern Lebanon and northern Israel.

The French cleric said that there had been "terrible destruction" of Lebanon’s infrastructure. "There’s a real feeling among people that this destruction was really planned, that it was a planned offensive," he said reporting on discussions with Lebanon’s main religious leaders, Christian and Muslim, as well as Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

De Clermont warned, however, that the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah overshadowed the situation in Gaza, which has faced an Israeli military offensive since the seizing of an Israeli soldier by Islamic militants in June.

"Gaza is going through a humanitarian crisis with no comparison to what happened there before, affecting 60 to 70 per cent of the population," said de Clermont. "They are still under the threat of Israeli incursions. Resolution 1701 of the United Nations [which brokered the cease-fire in Lebanon] doesn’t deal at all with the real heart of this issue."

In Jerusalem, the WCC group met the heads of local churches as well as Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger and the chief Islamic justice, Sheikh al Tamimi. In Ramallah, they met Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. However, the delegation was not able to meet Israeli government representatives.

(c) Ecumenical News International