World Council of Churches fails Palestinians

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  July 2, 2023 

Ten months ago, the World Council of Churches agreed to study the question of Israeli apartheid “and for its governing bodies to respond appropriately.” There is no sign that process has started.

Friends of the World Council of Churches (WCC) who celebrated the WCC’s 2022 General Assembly’s overwhelming adoption of a report calling on the ecumenical organization’s leadership “to examine, discuss and discern the implications of the recent reports by B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International [naming Israel apartheid]” are understandably disappointed.

A report from the June meeting of the Central Committee of the WCC reveals the WCC’s apparent indifference to the recent and increasingly brutal violence against Palestinians—including a spate of over a dozen pogroms carried out with impunity by hundreds of settlers targeting Palestinian villages during the week the committee was meeting.

The report, Minute on Territorial Crises in the Eastern Mediterranean, addresses the “occupations” in Palestine and Cypress and expresses the Central Committee’s “continuous concern about [these] two significant territorial crises in the eastern Mediterranean…,” but prefers a call to dialogue and continued efforts at reconciliation instead of naming Israeli colonial-apartheid as the source and context of the violence and decades-long occupation. 

The World Council of Churches, a global and diverse organization of over 350 member Christian faith communities in 120 countries, once led the global church in working toward the end of South Africa’s apartheid regime. 

Seemingly, times have changed.

Ten months ago, in August 2022, the WCC’s General Assembly meeting in Karlsruhe, Germany—attended by over 3,000 persons—issued the call to WCC leadership to take up the work of discerning implications of the reports by globally recognized human rights organizations naming Israel apartheid. 

Now, ten months later, there is no sign that WCC leadership has even begun the process.

Instead, despite noting that “2022 was the deadliest year in recent history,” the Central Committee settled for merely reissuing the Assembly’s call as an “appeal” to the organization’s leadership, including a request that WCC leadership “facilitate a safe space for dialogue among its members… on how to describe the realities on the ground and the policies and actions of Israel.”

One wonders: “A safe space for whom?”, “Doesn’t the Central Committee have the authority to instruct WCC leaders to begin the process called for by the September 2022 assembly?”, “If not the Central Committee, then who is responsible to define and start the process?”, and perhaps most important of all, “Why did the committee choose merely to invite ‘WCC member churches and partners to join collaborative efforts aiming to deescalate the existing tensions and to initiate reconciliation processes…?’”

As reported in Mondoweiss last year, there is a disagreement in the World Council of Churches between those wanting to maintain the unity of the global church and those who are willing to test the church’s unity for the sake of justice and freedom for Palestinians—as the WCC was tested in the 1970s and 80s regarding South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Asked by Mondoweiss to comment on the Central Committee’s report, Rifat Kassis, Director of Kairos Palestine, the most extensive grassroots, ecumenical Christian Palestinian movement, expressed his disappointment, saying that the Central Committee’s call for collaborative efforts to deescalate tensions and to initiate reconciliation processes is problematic, “as the colonial occupation and Israel’s apartheid are strengthening their grip on the land and the people of Palestine.” 

Kassis said the Central Committee should have encouraged member churches “to exercise as much pressure as possible on the occupation forces to stop their daily incursions into Palestinian areas and to stop the severe violations of Palestinian human rights.” The WCC, he said, must remind the global church “that settlers are prohibited and settlements are considered war crimes according to international law.” Kassis added the Central Committee should “ask Israel to stop encouraging and protecting its settlers to take the law in their hands and to provide the needed protection for the Palestinians civilians.”

So, for friends and supporters of the World Council of Churches the question remains: When will the WCC begin its work, as its Assembly called for in September 2022, “to examine, discuss and discern the implications of the recent reports by B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International [naming Israel apartheid], and for its governing bodies to respond appropriately”?

The Church, the world, and Palestinians—Christians and Muslims alike—should expect a faithful church to stand for justice, international law, and human rights regardless of the consequences.

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)