By David Waters,

America’s largest Presbyterian denomination is preparing for a contentious General Assembly next month as delegates will be asked to consider approving a strongly worded report that calls on the U.S. to stop sending billions of dollars in aid to Israel until it changes its policy toward Palestinians.

“Israel has both the responsibility and the ability to reverse the course of the precipitous decline throughout the region,” states the 172-page report “Breaking Down Walls,” written by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s nine-member Middle East Study Committee.

The report will be considered by the denomination’s 219th General Assembly, meeting July 3-10 in Minneapolis. In 2004, the PC (U.S.A.) became the first mainline Protestant denomination to approve a policy of divestment from Israel. The policy was unpopular with many Presbyterians and was later rescinded.

The new report doesn’t call for divestment, but it does urge the U.S. to halt aid to Israel until the Israeli government ends the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories, ceases its occupation” of Gaza, and relocates “Israel’s separation barrier” to spots outside of Palestinian territories.

“A just and lasting peace and security for the Palestinians is possible when the occupation has ended and Israel does not need to resort to military force to maintain its illegal land possession. If there were no occupation, there would be no Palestinian resistance. If there was no Palestinian resistance, Israelis could live in peace and security.”

“We also call upon the various Palestinian political factions to negotiate a unified government prepared to recognize Israel’s existence. We proclaim our alarm and dismay–both over the increasingly rapid exodus of Christians from Israel/Palestine caused by anti-Palestinian discrimination and oppression, the growth of Islamic and Jewish fundamentalism, and the occupation-related absence of economic opportunity; and also over the exodus of Christians from other parts of the region caused by various military, economic, religious, and cultural factors. And we oppose the government of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its sponsorship of international guerrilla warfare, and the threat these pose both to Israel and to Arab states.”

The report is drawing sharp criticism from Jewish groups and praise from Palestinian Muslim and Christian organizations.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism adopted a resolution last week, claiming that the report is “distinctly one-sided, traffics in troubling theology, misrepresents Jewish history, and “describes Israel as the occupying army and the major impediment to peace without acknowledging that the Israeli government has the ethical imperative to defend its citizens from terrorist infiltration.”

Rev. Richard Toll, chair of the group Friends of Sabeel North America, which supports Palestinian Christians protesting the occupation, praised the report.

“The Presbyterian Church in the United States has been a leader in confronting the issues of the illegal occupation of the Palestinian land by the state of Israel,” Toll told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “It is important and timely … that Presbyterians stand up for their previous resolutions and challenge other churches and all Americans to nonviolently resist the occupation.”

Several mainline Protestant denominations have issued critical statements about Israeli policies in Palestinian territories, and taken actions to support Palestinians. Evangelical denominations, meanwhile, tend to take the opposite view, strongly supporting Israel and its policies, primarily because of biblical passages that that link Israel’s survival to the Second Coming of Jesus..

In the run-up to the General Assembly, the PC (U.S.A.) study committee issued separate explanatory letters to Presbyterians, “American Jewish friends,” and “American Muslim friends.”

“We deeply value our relationships with Jews and Muslims in the United States, Israel, and the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East,” states the report. “Yet the bonds of friendship must neither prevent us from speaking nor limit our empathy for the suffering of others. Inaction and silence on our part enable actions we oppose and consequences we grieve.”

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