SECOND UPDATE: The World Council of Churches Holds Promised Land up to Scrutiny

Between Sept. 10 and Sept. 14, 2008 the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization headquartered in Switzerland, is holding a “debate” regarding the issue of “promised land.” The debate, which will be attended by approximately 65 theologians from WCC member churches, is billed as an effort to promote an “understanding of how theological issues may be related to the [Arab-Israeli] conflict.”


The debate is designed to initiate the “process of developing a handbook for congregations and parishes, aimed at facilitating their reflection on issues like the Promised Land, the Church and Israel, justice and peace.”

This may sound innocent enough, but publicity surrounding the event indicates that the debate will place Biblical claims to land under close scrutiny without making any effort to understand Muslim teachings about the land, or the Jewish people. In particular, the press release makes repeated references to Bible, but offers no mention of the Koranic theology regarding land and the Jewish people. The lack of any reference to this issue is troubling, because it suggests that a very important part of the Arab-Israeli conflict will not be addressed by the conference.

WCC’s Anti-Israel Animus

The WCC’s failure to make any reference to Muslim teachings regarding the Jewish people in a putative attempt discern “how theological issues may be related to the [Arab-Israeli] conflict” is particularly worrisome given the organization’s history. The WCC did not acknowledge Israel’s legitimacy between 1948 and 1967 and has been avowedly anti-Israel since 1967. One way the WCC’s anti-Israel animus expresses itself is in a failure to condemn Muslim hostility toward the Jewish state.

Writing in Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), Paul Merkley reports that while the WCC expressed sorrow for the suffering of the Jewish people in 1948, it remained agnostic about whether Israel’s creation was legitimate. Merkley quotes a WCC document as follows:

On the political aspects of the Palestine problem and the complex conflict of “rights” involved we do not undertake to express a judgment. Nevertheless, we appeal to the nations to deal with the problem not as one of expediency – political, strategic or economic – but as a moral and spiritual question that touches a nerve center of the world’s religious life. … the establishment of the state “Israel” adds a political dimension to the Christian approach to the Jews and threatens to complicate anti-Semitism with political fears and enmities.”
Merkley concludes: “If that last sentence means anything at all, it must be that Israel has only itself to blame if more ‘anti-Semitism’ should now appear in the world.  (Page 45)”

In the next paragraph, Merkley continues “Invariably in WCC documents, the creation of the State of Israel appears as a complication, never as an answer to a problem.”

In the years after the Six Day War, the WCC’s attitude toward Israel hardened as the organization adopted liberation theology as its lens for the world. Merkley quotes Martin Marty, a noted church historian (a regular contributor to The Christian Century, a publication whose coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been decidedly anti-Zionist) as follows:

Being anti-Israel has become part of the anti-Establishment gospel, the trademark of those who purport to identify with the masses, the downtrodden and the Third World. (Page 196)

One example of the WCC’s animus toward Israel took place in 1980. Merkley reports:

It seems that whenever WCC bodies face the prospect of division over other issues, the spirit of unity is achieved by raising the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus, at the meeting of its Central Committee in 1980, delegates found that they could not get the issue of the Soviet Union’s recent annexation of Afghanistan on the agenda; but the Jerusalem issue did get discussed, and Israel got denounced by establishing Jerusalem as its capital. Indeed, the denunciation of Israel for its rule over a united Jerusalem is a standing agenda item. (Page 197)

Liberation theology is not the only factor contributing to the WCC’s historical animus toward Israel. The influence exhibited by the organization’s staffers in the Middle East Office is another factor. Merkley conveys the testimony of an unnamed WCC insider who reports

… the people of the Middle East Office had been at the game for quite a while. As most of them were representatives of missionary interests in Arab countries, their basic view of the Middle East was one that left no room for Israel as an integral part of the region. When ever a governing board or National Council of Churches Executive Committee was approaching, a small group of “Middle East Desk” and “Justice and Liberation” people would get together to work on a draft statement. It was, of course, important that the proposed statement be “prophetic,” which in that particular context usually meant that the critique of some alleged Israeli sin would be severe while Arab countries were spared any kind of condemnation in order not to jeopardize Christian missionary interests there. (Page 196)

Given these realities, the WCC’s apparent failure to address Muslim land theology and Islam’s theology regarding the Jewish people is par for the course.

Muslim Teachings Regarding Land and the Jewish People

This failure undermines the WCC’s efforts to promote peace. Muslim beliefs regarding land and the Jewish people are a huge factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they require responsible, forthright discussion.

Regarding land, one important tenet of Islam is that any territory that has been previously been governed by Muslim rulers should never fall under the control of non-Muslim rulers. Israel, which falls under this category is a theological impossibility – a threat to the Islamic nomos or cosmology, as evidenced by Mustafa Abu Sway, an associate professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem when he spoke to Yossi Klein Halevi in 1991:

“Theologically there is no possibility of accepting a Jewish state. But Jews should trust Islam. They will be treated justly in an Islamic state, because they’ll be under the protection of Allah.” (“Holy War, Holy Peace,” The Jerusalem Report, Feb. 28, 1991)

Professor Abu Sway offered a blunter assessment of Israel’s existence at an interfaith conference held in Jerusalem in 2003 and covered by Gerald McDermott for Books & Culture, published by Christianity Today, Inc.

Mustafa Abu Sway remarked, to audible gasps from Jews in the audience, that he wished the state of Israel “would disappear.” (Books & Culture, March-April 2003)


Regarding the Jewish people themselves, the historical record is quite clear, and troubling. Muslim scriptures and writings portray the Jewish people as enemies of God and of Islam. For example, two passages in the Koran (2:65 and 7:166) refer to Jews who deny the truth of Islam as transforming into apes and another (5:60) refers to them as apes and pigs. This troublesome reality is well-documented in The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History (Prometheus, 2008). The Koran is filled with anti-Jewish passages that for the most part, been ignored by peace activists in the progressive Christian community in the United States. Bostom contradicts the notion that Islamic anti-Semitism can be viewed as a “borrowed phenomenon.” He writes on page 33:

Indeed, for the Muslim masses, basic Islamic education in the Qur’an, hadith, and sira (earliest Muslim biographies of Muhammad) may create an immutable superstructure on to which non-Muslim sources of Jew hatred are easily grafted.


Also on page 33, Bostom quotes Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, a leading Muslim scholar who, in the 1960s, described the Qur’an’s attitude toward Jews as follows:

[The] Qur’an describes the Jews with their own particular degenerate characteristics, i.e., killing the prophets of Allah, corrupting His words by putting them in the wrong places, consuming the people’s wealth frivolously, refusal to distance themselves from the evil they do, and other ugly characteristics caused by their deep-rooted lasciviousness … only a minority of Jews keep their word. … [A]ll Jews are not the same. The good ones become Muslim, the bad ones are not. (Qur’an 3:113)


As Bostom reports above, similar enmity toward the Jews is prevalent in other Muslim writings that detail the Mohammed’s sayings, recommendations and rulings. Sadly, throughout much of the Middle East, Muslim teachings about the Jewish people have real impacts on how people regard Jews and Israel. The depiction of Jews as monkeys and pigs is a common trope amongst extremists who call for violence against Jews and Israel in the region.


Christians have understood for decades that similar forces have been present in their religion and have worked to reinterpret their scriptures and theology in light of the Holocaust and refrain from using anti-Jewish tropes in their writings. For example, the World Council of Churches recently admitted to Amy-Jill Levine, author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jew ish Jesus (HarperSanFrancisco: 2006) that it had published books with anti-Jewish motifs.


Nevertheless, the World Council of Churches, like other Christian peacemaking institutions, has largely refrained from addressing the issue of Muslim anti-Semitism in the Middle East in a forthright manner.



Truthful, Robust Discussion Needed but Unlikely


It is entirely possible that the conference publicized by the WCC will in fact address Muslim land theology and its teachings toward the Jewish people, but it is not likely.


The WCC release regarding the debate provides a list of seven participants who are available for media requests, which includes Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch of the Roman Catholic Church in Jerusalem who has denied the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish State.


The history of Christian peacemaking in reference to the Middle East is marred by a persistent failure to take into account Muslim teachings that demonize and call for the subjugation of the Jewish people. These teachings, which are one of the wellsprings of the conflict, are not popular topics of discussion in the Christian “peacemaking” community, but they must be confronted.


Apparently, the WCC is not up to the task.
UPDATED: September 4, 2008

Expressing anger over the content of the above article, Michel Nseir, press contact for the conference, has refused, via email, to provide CAMERA with a copy of the program of the upcoming “debate.”


 “Yes, of course I could send you a detailed annotated program of the conference; but in fact after reading your article this morning … you will not need it since you have already decided on the content, the outcome, the aims and the objectives, etc. and judged that we are not ‘up to the task’.”


“For this reason,” Nseir rote, “I’m afraid that it will be difficult to collaborate with your organization, but will keep you informed when the acts will be published in early 2009.”


After the WCC’s refusal, CAMERA contacted Paul Merkley, author of the above-mentioned Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, who reported having similar difficulties obtaining materials for the organization for his research.


“That’s typical,” he said.
SECOND UPDATE: September 5, 2008
The WCC has provided CAMERA with a copy of the program for the upcoming conference. The program includes several events devoted to Jewish and Christian land theology, but makes no reference to Muslim land theology, or to Islamic teachings regarding the Jewish people. The lack of any reference to these issues in the program makes it increasingly unlikely that the conference will address them in a sustained and serious manner.

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