Jerusalem-based group is meeting on city's West Side
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Robert L. Smith
Plain Dealer Reporter
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often described as a struggle between Muslims and Jews, much to the chagrin of Arab Christians, whose numbers and moderate views make them easy to overlook.
This weekend, voices of Palestinian Christians dominate an unusual peace conference on Cleveland's West Side. The gathering in support of Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based group that calls itself the "voice of Palestinian Christians," has drawn nearly 300 people and prominent Palestinians to the St. Joseph Center on Rocky River Drive.
Organizers say the two-day 2007 Middle East Peace Conference, which began Friday, is meant to balance the American view of Mideast dramas by adding the Christian perspective.
"Theirs is a voice that really is not heard very often," said Jeff Abood, a Lebanese Christian from Akron and a member of the Interfaith Council for Peace in the Middle East, a local interfaith group that helped organize the conference.
But critics of the gathering contend the Palestinian Christian view closely parallels the Palestinian Muslim view. They say an essential perspective is missing, that of the mainstream Jewish community.
Representatives of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and other Jewish leadership groups here say they are ignoring the conference because Sabeel is neither balanced nor objective.
"They paint themselves as just wanting to support peace and justice in the Middle East," then blame Israel for all the problems and do not address terrorism, said Shari Kochman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Opening remarks Friday, while critical of Israel alone, showed some differences in Palestinian Christian opinion.
Afif Safieh, the Palestine Liberation Organization's representative to America and a Roman Catholic, said he has no problem with the Islamic movement Hamas controlling the Palestinian parliament. He blamed Israel and its occupation of Palestinian villages for the continued emigration of Palestinian Christians, who he said account for only about 2 percent of all Palestinians in the Holy Land.
But the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Anglican priest who founded the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, expressed concern about the aims of Hamas, which the United States calls a terrorist group.
"An Islamic state, we don't like it," Ateek said. "But we also don't like a Jewish state. We want a totally democratic state."
He added that extremism "is not acceptable to people like us."
The conference continues today with workshops titled "Challenging Christian Zionism," "Pal estine: Peace not Apartheid" and "Global Perspectives: Similarities in Palestine, Ireland and South Africa."
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