NCC delegation meets with Syria's president

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A National Council of Churches 13-member delegation met April 22 with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

NCC General Secretary Bob Edgar described Assad as "very interested in trying to help us understand better the personality of Syria and of the region, and the belief that the U.S. needs to play a better role in the peace process particularly [supporting] the U.N. resolutions for peace in the region," according to an Associated Press report.

The AP also quoted Edgar as:

-- challenging the Israelis to end the standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, considered in various Christian traditions as the birthplace of Christ. "We hope that the Israeli officials would take a different tact and recognize it as a holy place and provide opportunity for the tension and the siege to be removed," Edgar was quoted as saying. Israeli troops and tanks continue to surround the ancient church where an estimated 250 Palestinian gunmen took refuge April 3. Forty or more clerics and several nuns also are in the church, with Israeli, Palestinian and various Christian officials debating whether they are being held hostage.

-- supporting the state of Israel "with secure borders, but we believe that they should leave the occupied territories" so that an independent Palestinian state can be formed, Edgar was quoted as saying.

The delegation is scheduled to arrive April 23 in Israel. Edgar said the NCC delegation plans to "urge the Israelis" to live in accord with various U.N. resolutions calling for Palestinian self-determination.

The Associated Press account did not report whether Edgar voiced any concerns about the Palestinian Authority and its leader Yasser Arafat and the wave of suicide bombings by Palestinians against Israeli civilians.

A complaint that the NCC has shown "a severe tilt toward the Palestinian Authority that distorts truth and undermines the church's witness" was voiced by the Institute on Religion and Democracy's president, Diane Knippers, in an April 17 news release by the Washington-based organization.

Knippers urged the NCC delegate to avoid becoming "mere propagandists" for the Palestinian side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also urged the NCC delegation to avoid "a mindless moral equivalence" and, instead, make "crucial moral distinctions between the identities, goals and tactics of the parties in conflict."

Among those joining Edgar in the delegation are William Shaw of Philadelphia, president of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc.; James Edward Winkler of Washington, D.C., general secretary of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society; and James A. Forbes Jr., senior minister at New York City's Riverside Church.

The NCC has 36 member denominations; the Southern Baptist Convention, however, has never been affiliated with the council, which was founded in 1950.

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