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Religious Groups Divided Over U.S. Role Regarding Hamas

c. 2006 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ If you asked many Jewish and evangelical leaders how the United States should respond to the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections that ushered Hamas into power, the reaction would be fairly swift and severe: No aid. No relations. No questions asked. But if you asked Catholic and mainline Protestant […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ If you asked many Jewish and evangelical leaders how the United States should respond to the Jan. 25 Palestinian elections that ushered Hamas into power, the reaction would be fairly swift and severe:

No aid. No relations. No questions asked.

But if you asked Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders, most would urge a go-slow approach:

Support Israel. Wait to see what Hamas does. Keep humanitarian aid flowing. Keep the focus on a long-term solution.

Since Hamas is officially listed as a terrorist organization, and one that is committed to Israel’s destruction, Washington is carefully weighing its response _ diplomatically, monetarily and politically.

Religious groups, who frequently have a limited but respected voice on foreign policy, say the emergence of Hamas moves the story beyond pure politics. Jews say their spiritual homeland is in peril, churches worry about the future of the dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land, and nearly everyone is concerned about Hamas’ embrace of militant Islam.

“Overall, religious leaders seem to be as perplexed and dumbfounded by the Hamas victory as the policymakers,” said Timothy Shah, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

So far, religious groups are rallying around either a go-slow policy proposal or a get-tough bill in Congress.

The go-slow approach _ backed by most mainline Protestant churches, Catholic bishops and some Jewish and Muslim groups _ was expressed in a recent statement by the loose-knit National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East, which urged an “active, fair and firm” U.S. role in the region.

“We support the U.S. not acting precipitously to cut off aid to the Palestinian people,” the group said in a recent letter to President Bush, stressing that humanitarian aid must not be curtailed.

The get-tough bill _ backed by major Jewish groups _ is the proposed Palestinian Accountability Act, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla. It would prevent U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is controlled by a terrorist organization and refuses to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. It would also stop U.S. aid to United Nations agencies that directly fund Palestinians.

Ron Young, co-coordinator of the interfaith group, called the Ros-Lehtinen bill a “rush to judgment” and urged that the “president’s hands not be tied … by what we consider to be premature actions in the Congress.”

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The range of religious perspectives on Hamas reflects the complexity and uncertainty of the Middle East situation:

_ Jews

Several major U.S. Jewish groups endorsed the go-slow, interfaith statement on Hamas, but other Jewish activist groups have been more vocal in their opposition to any U.S. contact with a Hamas-led government.

A nationwide umbrella group, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, passed a resolution urging the international community not to deal with or aid the new Hamas-led government. The JCPA’s Martin Raffel said the group supports the “direction” of the Ros-Lehtinen bill but has concerns about cutting U.S. aid to the United Nations.

AIPAC, the powerful and well-connected American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is solidly behind the bill, and dispatched 4,500 activists on Tuesday (March 7) to push the bill on Capitol Hill during AIPAC’s Washington convention.

Reform rabbis, who represent the largest strain of U.S. Judaism, endorsed the interfaith statement, but Mark Pelavin, associate director of the movement’s Washington office, has concerns about congressional action. “In general, diplomacy is more effective when you have a little more flexibility,” he said.

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Americans for Peace Now, a left-leaning Jewish group, also has reservations, said Lewis Roth, the group’s assistant executive director.

“In terms of this particular piece of legislation, we support the basic premise of it that there shouldn’t be direct aid,” but question “the utility of some of the specific provisions in it and whether or not they may be more harmful in the long run,” Roth said.

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_ Catholics

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops waited until Friday (March 3) to issue a public position on Hamas, although individual bishops have joined the go-slow statement to urge continued humanitarian aid.

Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., writing for the bishops’ international policy committee, said it was “essential” to continue the flow of U.S. aid to Palestinians until Hamas’ governing policy becomes clearer.

“We do not believe it would be wise or just to withhold aid to the Palestinian people at large or punish them for the possible actions of their political leaders,” Wenski said.

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Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who frequently acts as an informal liaison to both the White House and Congress, has called the Hamas win “problematic” but insists that humanitarian aid flow unrestricted.

“Once you stop doing that, you’re as bad as anyone else,” McCarrick said in supporting the interfaith statement.

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_ Mainline Protestants

The go-slow approach has the support of most mainline church leaders, including Lutherans, United Methodists, Presbyterians and the National Council of Churches. Many mainline churches have strong emotional ties to Palestinian Christians.

One group to watch is the Presbyterian Church (USA), which has been the most outspoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a 2004 decision to explore economic divestment from key companies operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Vernon Broyles, who directs the Presbyterians’ “corporate witness” office, worries that cutting aid “runs the risk of alienating Palestinians even further than current U.S. policy has and, I think, reduces the opportunity for peaceful resolution.”

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Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian group that has been pushing divestment among U.S. churches, worries the Hamas election could cause some churches to disengage from the region, or provide cover for Israel to tighten the screws on Palestinians.

“The problem is not the election of Hamas,” said the Rev. Naim Ateek, an Episcopal priest who heads Sabeel. “The problem is the evil of the (Israeli) occupation.”

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_ Evangelical Protestants

Evangelicals are a key voice on the Middle East because of their outsized support of Israel and their close ties to the Bush White House. Their views on the Middle East have been reliably pro-Israel, but there has been no collective statement on Hamas.

An April 2005 poll by the Pew Forum found that 52 percent of evangelicals (compared to 35 percent of the U.S. public) said U.S. policy should favor Israel over the Palestinians. The same survey found the most ardent evangelicals favored Israel at a rate of 64 percent.

Some evangelical leaders _ Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, and Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. _ signed the go-slow statement, but other key evangelical leaders have remained mostly silent.

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Richard Land, who directs the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, suggested the U.S. would be violating its own policies if aid _ humanitarian or otherwise _ continued to flow to the Palestinians.

“We have laws in place that forbid us from giving money to terrorist groups,” Land said in an interview, “and I don’t think there’s any question that Hamas is a terrorist organization.”

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_ Muslims

For many U.S. Muslims, the global furor surrounding the now-infamous Muhammad cartoons in Europe overshadowed the Hamas election, and has kept many Muslim groups out of the debate.

Several Muslim groups joined the interfaith statement, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council said separately that removing U.S. funds would be “counterproductive” and “would wrongly punish the Palestinian people for voting their conscience.”

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Shah, of the Pew Forum, said the Muslim silence could be explained by the conundrum of not wanting to be associated with Hamas’ version of militant Islam.

“I think they’re somewhat caught in a bind on this,” Shah said. “They … have an instinctive sympathy for Palestinians, but also a sense that we can’t be seen as supporting” a known terrorist group.

MO/PH END ECKSTROM

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