Politicians need to focus on the human face of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not discard it in favour of their own political agendas, the head of the World Council of Churches has said in the Middle East.
“Politicians need to act and prevent this human tragedy,” WCC general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, told ENInews after a visit to Palestinian families who have been evicted by Israelis from their homes in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheik Jarrah.
He said that although there are many holy sites in the Holy Land, the people who live on the land are also holy. “This is not about political principles, this is about human beings. It is a shame that politicians are interested more in their own political interests than in bringing basic human rights,” said Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran theologian.
It is Tveit’s first visit to the Holy Land as WCC general secretary, although he visited the region several times before taking up his post at the Geneva-headquartered church grouping in January.
In addition to meeting with the leaders of local churches, Tveit was scheduled to meet with the Israeli chief rabbis, representatives of several Jewish group partners and the Jerusalem grand mufti, a representative of Islam. Tveit also travelled to Bethlehem and Hebron.
On the fourth day of his six-day visit to the Holy Land, Tveit noted that meeting with the family members from about 12 families evicted from their homes in the past two years greatly affected his understanding of infringements of Palestinian rights which are taking place.
Nabil Al-Kurd, 67, whose family was evicted from half of his two-building home, told Tveit that Jewish settlers harassed the families, and that the families’ sons as young as nine and 12 have been taken in by Israel police for questioning.
Still, he also mentioned that every week a group of Israelis and others who support them protest against the eviction, along with the affected families.
Al-Kurd’s 88-year-old mother, Refqa Al-Kurd, recalled how they woke up one day in the other building and found all their furniture from the front building strewn in their yard. She described how she had been attacked by police when she protested against the eviction.
“There can be no peace for both sides if both sides do not have security,” Tveit said. “This has nothing to do with religion; it is an abuse of power. How can there be good relations with these people afterwards? If we love God we are also called to love our neighbours as ourselves.”
Zakariah Odeh, the executive director of the Civic Coalition for Jerusalem who briefed Tveit on the situation, said the legal case against the families has been before Israeli courts for 37 years. Israeli settler groups claim the land on which the homes are built is Jewish-owned. Odeh said however about 28 Palestinian refugee families had been settled in the area under a 1956 agreement between Jordan, which had control of the area before 1967 and provided the land, and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency which built the houses.
“This type of situation also destroys Israel … It is not giving [Israelis] the freedom to live as good neighbours,” said Tveit. “Churches around the world have the duty to speak out to [those in power] about the responsibility they have towards taking care of the basic human rights here.”
The WCC general secretary said the issue of the presence of Palestinians in Jerusalem, including Christian Palestinians, regarding their residency rights in the city needs to be addressed. He noted the need of support for local churches to keep their young people from emigrating due to a lack of economic and social opportunities, especially in the city of Jerusalem.
Tveit said it is important for the WCC and local churches to foster awareness of the situation, with programmes such as the WCC’s Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel. This enables people from outside to the West Bank to experience life in areas under occupation.
The WCC groups 349 churches, principally Anglican, Orthodox and Protestant.