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United Methodist Church set to debate Middle East divestment


The United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations in the United States, gathers for its once-every-four-years churchwide meeting this week. It is expected to debate a number of controversial issues, including divestment in the Middle East, and ministerial ordination and sexuality.

The meeting is likely to debate the issue of transgender, following a 2005 denominational court decision that permitted a transgender UMC pastor, Drew Phoenix of Baltimore, Maryland, to remain in his position because the denomination has no rules regarding those who have changed their gender.

However, it is the issue of possible divestment from the Middle East that has sparked the greatest attention in advance of the 23 April-2 May meeting of the UMC’s general conference, its main legislative body, in Fort Worth, Texas.

On 17 April, the denomination’s social action agency, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, announced it was withdrawing a petition that was to be considered by the General Conference. The petition called for the divestment of church investments in Caterpillar Inc., a US-based manufacturer of heavy equipment that is used by the Israeli military in the occupation of Palestinian territories.

The withdrawal of the petition followed talks between the Methodist agency and Caterpillar, which issued a statement condemning what it called "the illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment". Talks are to continue, Caterpillar announced, adding, "We are committed to further conversations and possible philanthropic activities in Palestinian areas."

However, the Methodist Federation for Social Action has announced it is to submit a petition calling for the "phased, selective divestment from companies that support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and other violations of human rights in Palestine/Israel".

Amy Stapleton, a spokeswoman for the federation, which is not an official denominational group, told Ecumenical News International that several divestment-related petitions are likely to be considered at the denomination-wide gathering.

Though some observers suggest the withdrawal of the petition regarding Caterpillar is likely to give divestment a lower profile at the denominational gathering, Stapleton said, "In no way is this issue dead."

A New York-based group, Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, which advocates for what it says is fairness on the issue of the Israeli-Arab conflict, said at least one divestment-related petition to be considered was "nothing more than a one-sided attack on the state of Israel camouflaged by the verbiage of peace and justice".

On 16 April, supporters of divestment linked to the denomination’s New England Conference announced that more than 130 Israelis had signed a letter expressing support for United Methodist divestment from companies that it said "sustain Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land".

The letter stated, "We assure the Methodist Church that it is no more anti-Semitic to criticise and oppose Israeli government policies than it was anti-American to oppose the Vietnam War or is anti-American to oppose the present war in Iraq. It is never anti-Semitic to oppose injustice, destruction, gross inequity, and inequality."

The US-based United Methodist Church is, after the Southern Baptist Convention, the second largest US Protestant denomination, with about 12 million members, 8 million of them in the United States. Other members are based in Africa, Asia and Europe.

(c) Ecumenical News International