World Council of Churches General Assembly puts Israeli apartheid on the global church’s table 

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  September 10, 2022

In a move that could have far-reaching impact, the World Council of Churches has agreed to study the issue of Israeli apartheid despite a German church’s attempt to block the decision.

Thursday morning, the World Council of Churches (WCC) wrapped up its nine-day General Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany. One of the last pieces of business was to consider a controversial statement put forward by the WCC’s Public Issues Committee, Seeking Justice and Peace for All in the Middle East.

The WCC Assembly is the highest governing body of the World Council of Churches. Well over 3,000 participants from 352 member churches in 120 countries gathered for the COVID-delayed assembly that normally meets every eight years. Member churches and ecumenical partners come together for prayer, celebration and deliberation. 

WCC Public Issues Statements often have a far-reaching impact, giving instruction and guidance on critical issues, speaking to the church and speaking for the church to governments and other secular and religious institutions.

This year, one such statement dealt with Israeli apartheid.

Apartheid debate

Public Issues Statement 01.4, focused on the rapidly worsening realities that Palestinians face—while clearly affirming “the rightful place of the State of Israel in the community of nations”—and also pointed to the many reports of human rights organizations “describing the policies and actions of Israel as amounting to ‘apartheid’ under international law.” 

The statement further named displacement of Palestinians from their homes, increased Israeli military presence, “encroachment on and seizure of Palestinian lands and properties, and increased systematic harassment and attacks by settlers… [and] mounting intimidation, violations, limitation of access to places of worship, and attacks by radicals and authorities on the Christian presence and identity in Jerusalem”—without explicitly accusing Israel of the crime of apartheid. 

On Wednesday, the statement was discussed in what the WCC describes as a “reflecting” hearing, to gauge a sense of the assembly. It was returned to the Public Issues Committee after vigorous debate, including a strong objection to the statement’s inclusion of the word apartheid by delegates of the Evangelical Church of Germany (EKD). 

The word appeared only once in the lengthy statement, in the following paragraph:

Recently, numerous international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations and legal bodies have published studies and reports describing the policies and actions of Israel as amounting to “apartheid” under international law. These reports conclude that the state of Israel is implementing an illegal system of separation or segregation based on race, creed or ethnicity, and committing human rights violations and denial of freedoms. They have described this system as designed to maintain domination by one racial group over another and the systemic denial of freedom and forced ghettoization of the Palestinian people. This should be a matter of concern, enquiry and further discernment for the WCC.

EKD Bishop Petra Bosse-Huber declared to the gathered delegates that her church would never use the word apartheid to describe Israel, even though the statement only referred to the studies that had concluded that Israel’s actions fit the definition.

Bishop Bosse-Huber was expressing a policy of the German government as well as her church.

In 2017, the German Bundestag adopted the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism which conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism and has since worked to suppress criticism of Israel. In February, Reuters reported that in a government news conference, Germany’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Christopher Burger said, “Germany rejects the use of terms such as ‘apartheid’ in connection with Israel.” 

The revised statement that was introduced and adopted in Thursday’s plenary satisfied neither the German church delegates nor supporters of Palestine who had argued for the WCC to clearly name Israeli apartheid. The only major change to the statement that came out of the Public Issues Committee was an effort to reflect the fact that there was not a common consensus on the part of the delegates. So the original paragraph was edited to read:

Recently, numerous international, Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations and legal bodies have published studies and reports describing the policies and actions of Israel as amounting to “apartheid” under international law. Within this Assembly, some churches and delegates strongly support the utilization of this term as accurately describing the reality of the people in Palestine/Israel and the position under international law, while others find it inappropriate, unhelpful and painful. We are not of one mind on this matter….

Dr. Marthie Momberg, Research Fellow at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University and Stellenbosch University, criticized the statement, telling Mondoweiss, “It does not acknowledge the asymmetry in power between the Palestinians and Israel. It promotes ‘Church Theology.’ This kind of theology,” she explained, “talks of oppression as if it is part of an even-handed conflict. The Dutch Reformed Church and other churches practiced this theology during apartheid in my country.”

Promoting unity over justice

While acknowledging that a goal of the Palestinians was reached—to bring the reality of Israeli apartheid to the floor of the assembly for discussion—Rifat Kassis, Director of Kairos Palestine, the grassroots, ecumenical Christian Palestinian movement, pointed to another troublesome issue revealed in the statement. “The ecumenical movement has to understand that the unity of the movement should not be at the expense of justice and freedom,” he explained to Mondoweiss.

Philip Woods is Associate Director of Presbyterian World Mission, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church USA, which at its General Synod this summer passed a resolution describing Israel’s apartheid laws and practices. Of the amended text, Woods told his delegation, “Positively it acknowledges that some churches accept the use of the term apartheid. Negatively it transfers the issue from the plight of the Palestinian people to managing division among churches on the use of the term apartheid.”

Rev. Prof. Chris Ferguson, former General Secretary of the World Communion of Reformed Churches teaching now at Universidad Reformada in Columbia, observed to Mondoweiss, “The German church leaders did not succeed in closing the door on the WCC’s study of apartheid, even though they effectively reframed the suffering of Palestinians as a question of church unity rather than justice.”  

Before the plenary was asked to express itself on the resolution, Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, General Secretary Emeritus of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and one of the church’s WCC’s delegates, took to the microphone and said, “I was raised under Jim Crow laws in the U.S. During my time in Palestine, I saw Palestinian suffering under apartheid.”

Next Steps

Surviving in the statement was the call of the General Assembly for “The WCC to study, discuss and discern the implications of the recent reports by B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and for its governing bodies to respond appropriately.” 

Rev. David Haslam of the UK’s Methodist Sabeel-Kairos Group told Mondoweiss, “We now have to challenge the WCC’s Central Committee and the churches to make a detailed response to these reports and refute them if they can.” He added, “Of course, it is impossible to refute the reports.” 

Following affirmation of the statement, Presbyterian Woods lamented to this reporter, “How is it that churches with all our pastoral concern for the plight of marginalized and oppressed peoples and our bold pronouncements about justice, all too often when faced with hard choices always make the issue about ourselves and not those we profess to be concerned about? It is a sad and shameful situation that undermines our witness, our authenticity and our credibility.”

Copies of A Dossier on Israeli Apartheid: A Pressing Call to Churches Around the World, created by Kairos Palestine and Global Kairos for Justice, were available at the assembly. The 46-page booklet, available in German and French (the other two official languages of the WCC), is a thoroughly documented description of Israeli apartheid along with a section that seemingly anticipated and explicitly addresses the other delegates who, according to the assembly statement, “find [use of the word apartheid] inappropriate, unhelpful and painful.”

Jeff Wright is a retired pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as a mission co-worker appointed to Kairos Palestine