Churches speak out on economic pressure as a tool for peace

On 21 February of this year, the 150 member Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to give serious consideration to economic measures as a new way to work for peace. (WCC)

During the first week of January 2004, Israeli minister of Justice Yosef Lapid warned his country about an international boycott. He told Israeli radio: “There is a very serious risk the World Court (International Court of Justice in the Hague) will rule against us …. and this is liable to prompt the General Assembly into imposing all sorts of sanctions against us”.1

Despite this, Israel has continued its occupation, including the construction of the Wall and expansion of the settlements in Occupied Palestinian territories. Lapid was right, the voice for economic pressure on Israel is becoming louder, especially from the churches.

Calls for economic measures

On 21 February of this year, the 150 member Central Committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to give serious consideration to economic measures as a new way to work for peace. The WCC encouraged their members to explore ways not to participate economically in illegal activities related to the Israeli occupation.

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of approximately 345 churches from Christian traditions in more than 120 countries. The recommendation was brought to the attention of all the member churches and their management in relation to the organization’s own investments. The WCC commended the action of the US Presbyterian Church in initiating a process of phased, selective divestment from multinational corporations involved in the occupation of Palestinian Territories.

Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian peace advocacy organisation followed this development in April with a further call for economic pressure on Israel. In their report, “A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation: a Call for Morally Responsible Investment”,2 Sabeel clarified why these measures were justified.

Further, on 9 July 2005, marking the occasion of the first anniversary of the ICJ judgement on Israel’s Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 173 Palestinian political parties, unions, associations, coalitions and organizations issued a call for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel until it complied with international law and universal principles of human rights.

Church activities gain momentum

Prior to this major call for boycotts from Palestinian organisations, in June 2005, the New England Annual Conference of United Methodists passed a resolution calling for voluntary, selective divestment from companies involved in the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. A committee was to be formed to prepare a list of such companies within half a year. The Methodist Churches and the New England Conference will later be urged to consider divesting from these companies.

In the same month, the Anglican Consultative Council, a committee of the 75 million-member Anglican Communion, unanimously passed a resolution commending its member churches to consider divesting from companies supporting the occupation of Palestine. The Kenyan Anglican Church announced on 5 July that it backed the call for divestment.3

In July 2005, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ (UCC) voted to consider various forms of economic leverage - including divestment - to promote peace. It also called for the Israeli government to stop construction and to “tear down” the Wall.4 The UCC has 1.3 million members and 5.700 congregations.

Presbyterian Church

In August 2005, the Presbyterian Church of the USA5 announced five companies that had been selected on the basis of set criteria as the focus of a divestment campaign. The criteria included activities and products of corporations used to: support and maintain the occupation; establish, expand, or maintain Israeli settlements; support or facilitate violent acts by Israelis or Palestinians against innocent civilians; support or facilitate the construction of the Separation Barrier. The Presbyterian Church will enter into a process of “progressive engagement” with Caterpillar, Citigroup, ITT Industries, Motorola, and United Technologies.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), at its assembly in August approved of a resolution which “urges ELCA to move toward stewarding financial resources - both U.S. tax dollars and private funds - in ways that support the quest for a just peace in the Holy Land.”6

Finally, the Episcopal Church will consider issuing a resolution on economic leverage regarding Israel and Palestine on the agenda at its coming national assemblies.

WCC on Gaza withdrawal

On 22 August, the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs issued a press release7 with background information on how to evaluate the Gaza withdrawal. For instance, it formulated its concerns that Gaza land, sea and air links remain open to the outside world, especially to the West Bank. Further, it questioned: how many settlers would resettle within Israel’s pre-1967 borders; the route of Israel’s barriers versus Palestinian land and water rights and whether Palestinians would have free access to their communities in East Jerusalem while Israel assured the security of its citizens in accordance with international law. Furthermore, it expressed a desire to see construction stop on the barrier wall and that the hundreds of checkpoints and barriers within the occupied territories be removed.

The statement shows that the WCC is looking at the withdrawal from Gaza in the broader context of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and Israel’s violation of international law.

It is clear that the withdrawal from Gaza does not provide a reason to ease the pressure. The churches would be urged to continue their efforts towards peace in the Middle East with the tool of economic pressure. The American churches should inspire their colleagues in Europe to follow in their footsteps.

Adri Nieuwhof is a psychologist and was from 1978 - 1991 a member of the Holland Committee for Southern Africa (KZA), the largest Anti-Apartheid Organisation in The Netherlands


[1] Israel warned of apartheid boycott (6 January 2004)
[2] Sabeel, A Nonviolent Response to the Occupation: A Call for Morally Responsible Investment and PDF-version
[3] Kenyan Anglican church backs Israel divestment call (5 July 2005)
[4] Church Statements & Resolutions: Tear the Wall Down (July 2005)
[5] Presbyterian Church names companies for ‘progressive engagement’ over role in Middle Eats, PUCSA (5 August 2005)
[6] Somerville Divestment Project
[7] WCC central committee encourages consideration of economic measures for peace in Israel/Palestine