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10 July 2005:
Sabeel's Ecumenical Facade

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Based in Jerusalem, the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center is an NGO, founded in 1989 and directed by Naim Ateek, former Canon of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem. Sabeel describes itself as "an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians", which "hopes to connect the true meaning of Christian faith with the daily lives of all those who suffer under occupation, violence, discrimination, and human rights violations" and " encourages Christians from around the world to work for justice and to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people." Reliable funding information is unavailable, but support is apparently provided by church-based groups in North America and Europe, including the Mennonite Central Committee.

Reflecting its mission statement, Sabeel is active in promoting an extreme anti-Israel agenda in Protestant churches in both North America and Europe. Sabeel's efforts have promoted the campaign to isolate and delegitimize Israel through the divestment campaign, which have recently been adopted by the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Church in Britain, the Presbyterian Church, and others. Many of these Church statements reflect and quote from Sabeel's publications. Rev. John Gladwin, Bishop of Chelmsford and Chair of Christian Aid's Board of Trustees is a patron of Sabeel's UK branch. Paul Dean, another member of Christian Aid's Executive Committee, also participates in Sabeel's activities. In addition, Afif Safieh, the PLO representative in London, is a major supporter of Sabeel and its ideology.

As noted in a detailed study by Robert Everett and Dexter Van Zile, and cited in their Jerusalem Post article of July 10, 2005 "Reawakening the teachings of contempt", Sabeel is a major factor in extremist Christian anti-Israel activism. Sabeel's statements consistently highlight Palestinian suffering and place blame on Israel, while ignoring such issues as corruption within the Palestinian Authority, violence perpetrated against Israelis and Palestinians alike by armed Palestinian militias, and attacks against Christian Arabs.

Ateek's extreme positions are stated in a number of publications, such as Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation (New York: Orbis 1989) and Suicide Bombers, A Palestinian Christian Perspective (Cornerstone 2002). In the latter, Ateek uses the rhetoric of demonization, claiming that "Israel is creating Bantustans (homelands, reservations) for the Palestinians and an Israeli form of apartheid that is much worse than what was practiced in South Africa" and that "the occupation…continues to be the root cause of the violence and terror."

Ateek employs classical antisemitic theological themes, as reflected in the 2001 Sabeel "Easter message": "it seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him. […] The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily." In similar messages, such as a February 2001 sermon, Ateek accuses Israel of killing Jesus (the Palestinians) as infant, prophet and messiah: "Israel has placed a large boulder, a big stone that has metaphorically shut off the Palestinians in a tomb. It is similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus' tomb…"

While Ateek often rejects Israel's legitimacy, he acknowledges its "need" to exist, justifying that "the elimination of Israel would mean greater injustice to millions of innocent people who know no home except Israel." (Justice and Only Justice: A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, p164.)

On this basis, Ateek supports a "one-state solution" to the Arab-Israeli conflict, demanding that Israel dismantle itself as a Jewish state. "I still believe that this solution is feasible. It is the best and easiest to implement. […However,] Israel insists above all on being a Jewish state. As part of a democratic, binational Palestine, the Jews would eventually become a minority in the country." (Justice, p166) This theme, which is thinly disguised example of policide - the call for the elimination of the State of Israel -- is echoed by several Protestant leaders active in the divestment campaign. For example, Victor Makari, a leader of the Presbyterian Church (USA), told the Jerusalem Report on Sept. 6, 2004 that "his preferred solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a 'shared democratic state' - a solution he later admits is a non-starter because of Israeli concerns that the one-state solution is tantamount to demographic suicide." This and other examples of direct repetition of Ateek's rhetoric reflect his role in propelling the church-based anti-Israel divestment campaign in America.

Nevertheless, Ateek has been able to garner considerable international support for his activities. In 2002, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Laureate, signed on informally as an international patron for Sabeel, in order to "assist the Palestinian Christian organization in its outreach and development work with Christian Churches around the world." Likewise, Ateek himself has been referred to as "Palestine's Desmond Tutu" in Sojourners magazine, the publication of a self-described "social justice" Christian ministry.

Ateek's influence has been further amplified in the US and Canada by the Friends of Sabeel North America (FOSNA) network of chapters that disseminate Ateek's rhetoric. It is also assisted by a broader and looser network of supporters in mainstream Protestant churches across America, who in turn reach the broader public audience through their own considerable individual and collective influence.

The result, as is now clear, is displayed in the divestment campaign, which is the latest form of political warfare against Israel and the Jewish people, and as far removed as possible from the claimed ecumenical objective.

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