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Bishops call for peacemaking in Holy Land (UM News)

November 13, 2023

Amid Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza in response to Hamas’ terrorist assault, the United Methodist Council of Bishops called for both prayer and work toward lasting peace in the Holy Land.

The bishops also denounced the antisemitism, Islamophobia and hate crimes that are brutalizing people well beyond the war-torn region.

“We value all life,” the bishops said in a statement released Nov. 10 during their fall meeting. “We encourage every effort toward a peaceful solution. We call for the release of hostages and for the killing to stop. We also call for the immediate allowance of unrestricted humanitarian assistance.”

The bishops’ statement comes amid growing international calls for a cease-fire in Gaza to provide basic necessities to civilians, treat the wounded and halt the killing — especially of children.

Also last week, the Churches for Middle East Peace and 30 U.S. Christian leaders called on U.S. President Biden and his administration to support an immediate cease-fire, de-escalation and restraint by all involved in the conflict. Among the letter’s signers were top executives of three United Methodist agencies: Roland Fernandes of Global Ministries, John Hill of Church and Society, and Sally Vonner of United Women in Faith.

Peace with justice is the only lasting solution that will protect the long-term security and sustainability of the State of Israel and the self-determination and independence of Palestinians,” the Christian leaders’ letter said with bolding for emphasis.

This most recent convulsion of violence began when Hamas attacked southern Israel during the festive Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah on Oct. 7 — killing an estimated 1,200 people and seizing hostages. It was widely reported as the deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust. Israeli officials estimate about 240 hostages remain held in Gaza.

Since the incursion, Israel has responded with air and ground strikes in Gaza in an effort to root out Hamas — which has mixed in with the civilian population. The highly urbanized Gaza Strip has a population of about 2.3 million living in an area only about 20 square miles bigger than Little Rock, Arkansas.

Palestinian health officials estimate the recent violence has killed about 11,000 people — including more than 3,600 children. According to the global charity Save the Children, the number of children in Gaza reported killed in three weeks has surpassed the annual number of children killed across the world’s conflict zones since 2019.

Over the weekend, hospital staff reported that fuel had run out at both Shifa and al-Quds hospitals in northern Gaza and that they are no longer operational. Gaza’s health ministry says that at least five patients have died in part due to the lack of fuel, including at least three babies. The hospitals’ struggles come as Hamas militants and Israeli soldiers clash nearby. Israel and Hamas are exchanging blame over the lack of fuel at Shifa hospital.

The United Methodist bishops’ statement makes no mention of the phrase “cease-fire.” It came out the same day U.S. leaders announced that Israel had agreed to begin daily four-hour pauses in northern Gaza to allow people to flee hostilities.

Indiana Conference Bishop Julius C. Trimble, who chairs the bishops’ Justice and Reconciliation Committee that drafted the statement, said he sees hope for the pauses to address some humanitarian concerns. However, he said the bishops are calling for something more enduring than a cease-fire.

“The essence of our concern is to address the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and not ignore the pain that has been experienced by people in Israel, the Palestinians, the people who are being held hostage,” Trimble said. “So, we think that the role of the bishops is not only to call on people to pray but also to call on us to encourage the investment in peacemaking.”

Trimble has traveled nine times to the Holy Land, where he has gotten to know both Israelis and Palestinians. He urged United Methodists to remember that many Jews, Christians and Muslims living in the Middle East have worked together for peace for a long time, though as the current crisis shows, not always successfully.

“It’s not sufficient to identify who’s to blame or who’s responsible for one tragedy after another,” Trimble said. “But how can we as a human family really invest in the hard work of peacemaking?”

On the same day the bishops released their statement, Christian leaders in Jerusalem announced they were preparing for a solemn Advent and Christmastide.

Usually, this time of year sees a number of pilgrims from around the globe traveling to celebrate Christ’s birth at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and other sacred sites in the life of Jesus. This year, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem encourage their flocks to avoid unnecessary festivities, focus on the spiritual meaning of Christmas, advocate for peace and bring relief to the afflicted.

“In these ways, we believe, we will be standing in support of those continuing to suffer — just as Christ did with us in his Incarnation,” the Jerusalem Christian leaders said in their statement.

They add their hope that “all of God’s children might receive the hope of a New Jerusalem in the presence of the Almighty, where ‘death shall be no more, neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain, for the former things have passed away’(Revelation 21:4).”

Christians around the globe have been praying for peace and seeking other helpful ways to respond since the Oct. 7 attacks.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton previously released a statement on the council’s behalf immediately after that brutality. That earlier statement condemned the attack on Israel and decried the deaths of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

The full council’s most recent statement also offers solidarity with those in pain and seeks a better way.

“We cannot stand by as though God is not weeping when the innocent, including children, are dying,” the bishops’ Nov. 10 statement concludes. “We cannot abandon the way of Peace.

“May we find ways to listen to the stories of those most directly impacted by this centuries-old conflict. We commit to join all people in creating life-giving ways to journey toward peace with justice for all.”