The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), joined leaders of Christian churches and church-related organizations from the United States and the Holy Land in Atlanta April 19-20 for “Pursuing Peace and Strengthening Presence: The Atlanta Summit of American and Palestinian Churches.”
This first-ever gathering of American and Palestinian Christians in the United States focused on exploring the role of Christian churches in peacemaking in Israel-Palestine and helping strengthen the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
“It was significant that a broad spectrum of Christian churches – Evangelicals to Orthodox, historic black denominations as well as mainline denominations – participated,” said Eaton. “This diverse coalition has more credibility than the usual alliances. The freedom of Palestine, the security of the state of Israel and the preservation of Arab Christianity in the Holy Land are not political issues for a few but a faith issue for many.”
Other representatives from the ELCA included the Rev. Rafael Malpica-Padilla, executive director, ELCA Global Mission; the Rev. Jeffrey Thiemann, CEO, Portico Benefits Services; and the Rev. Cindy Halmarson, area program director for Europe and the Middle East, ELCA Global Mission. The Rt. Rev. Dr. Munib Younan, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, attended along with patriarchs and other heads of churches in Jerusalem.
The event, held at the Carter Center, brought together about 100 leaders from diverse Christian denominations and organizations, including Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, mainline Protestant and historic African American and Latino churches. Former President Jimmy Carter delivered the keynote speech during the final session.
“Bishop Younan and other leaders are calling for U.S. churches to strengthen the Christian presence in Palestine,” said Halmarson. “I hope this conference is the beginning of a broader and deeper coalition of U.S. church support to accompany Palestinians in pursuit of peace and strengthening Christian presence in the Holy Land.”
The ELCA, through its Peace Not Walls campaign, is working for peace and justice in the region through accompaniment, advocacy and awareness-building. Among other objectives, the effort connects ELCA members with Palestinian Lutheran companion churches in the region to promote healing and reconciliation.
The goals of the Atlanta summit included drafting a summit document that articulates a comprehensive vision for the future of the Holy Land and its Christians, writing a letter to President Barack Obama that communicates this vision, and adopting a strategy for common witness by American and Palestinian churches.
The summit document states: “We have come together for two days of prayer and open dialogue in a spirit of theological and ethical urgency for a just peace, and to express our ecumenical unity in action towards the end of occupation and a lasting political situation in the Holy Land. We honor the land that witnessed to the life and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ affirming his call to justice, peacemaking and to the ministry of justice and reconciliation.”
The document outlines issues that merit special attention in order to effectively promote peace with justice and advance the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. The points include:
- Develop more effective advocacy in the United States.
- Educate members of congregations on the merits and necessity of a peace process that fulfills the rights of all people and nations in the region to live in security and peace.
- Recognize, affirm and support the solidarity that is being demonstrated among some Christians, Jews and Muslims in addressing humanitarian needs, fighting poverty and fostering peace.
- Designate a common day of prayer and reflections across churches in the U.S. and the Holy Land.
Following the Atlanta summit, Eaton and Younan joined Fouad Twal, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem; Suheil Dawani, archbishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem; and several other members of the Palestinian delegation in Washington, D.C., April 21-22. At the White House, the group delivered the letter addressed to Obama and a copy of the summit document. Meeting with Dr. Colin Kahl, assistant to the president and national security adviser to the vice president, and Yael Lempert, special assistant to the president and senior director for the Levant, Israel and Egypt at the National Security Council, the delegation highlighted the importance of education in the Holy Land, the need to fight extremism and radicalism, and Jerusalem’s centrality to the peace process.
The group also met with U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, congressional staff members and representatives of the State Department to discuss the outcomes of the summit.
“The Atlanta Summit was very significant in many respects but especially for its reaffirmation of the Palestinian Christian presence in the Holy Land and its call to revitalize advocacy efforts in the U.S. towards a just and lasting solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” said Dennis Frado, director, Lutheran Office for World Community, ELCA Global Mission. “The delegation’s follow-up visit to Washington was important to convey those messages to U.S. policy makers.”