CULTURE DIGEST: Israel boycott launched by Presb. assembly

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--In a move targeting Israeli policies toward Palestinians, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) have approved a resolution to divest investment funds from companies doing business in Israel.

The denomination's 216th General Assembly, which met in Richmond, Va., June 26-July 3, called for the corporate witness office of the Presbyterian Church to begin gathering data to support a selective divestment of holdings in multinational corporations doing business in Israel, similar to the way U.S. churches helped end apartheid in South Africa in the '70s and '80s, according to a PCUSA news release.

Before the vote, commissioners heard from a Lutheran pastor from Bethlehem who said for too long churches have simply issued statements, and that is not enough. PCUSA's liaison to the Middle East, Victor Makari, also supported divestment.

"I think the issue of divestment is a very sensitive one with Israel," Makari said. "... If nothing else seems to have changed the policy of Israel toward Palestinians, we need to send a clear and strong message."

But Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein of The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles voiced his concern in response to the resolution, saying it is morally offensive and counterproductive.

"The resolution implies that Israel, the only democracy in the region, and a country that allows unrestricted freedom of worship to Christians, should be stigmatized as apartheid," he wrote in a column that appeared on ChristianityToday.com.

Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law at Harvard University, also spoke out against the resolution, saying it "blames the Israelis for Palestinian slaughter of civilians by asserting that the occupation is the 'root' of terrorism."

"The Presbyterian resolution effectively calls for the end of Israel by insisting on 'the right of [Palestinian] refugees to return to their homeland,'" Dershowitz wrote in a Los Angeles Times column. "This is a well-known euphemism for turning Israel from a Jewish state into another state with a Palestinian majority. (Jordan is the other.)"

What is more disturbing to some is that the divestment resolution seems to be largely out of step with the majority of the 2.5 million Presbyterians in the United States. Alderstein said he has picked up multiple indications of large-scale discontent within the Presbyterian community, just by monitoring from his listening post at the Wiesenthal Center.

"Gregg Meister, an ordained PCUSA minister who heads up Interlink Media, told us that 'the actions of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly do not accurately reflect the beliefs and convictions of the people in the pews,'" Alderstein wrote, continuing to quote: "'We share with Israel belief in the same God and the same democratic system. No Arab state does. I am confident that the majority of people in our denomination strongly support Israel's right to exist and to defend itself.'"

Alderstein added that an ad-hoc group of volunteers called Los Angeles area Presbyterian churches, selected randomly from the phone book, to ask their opinion about the divestment resolution. Nine out of 10 expressed discontent.

PROGRESSIVE BAPTISTS PROTEST IRAQ WAR -- Leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention passed a resolution against the war in Iraq in January 2003, and now they've approved a measure calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

About 6,000 representatives met in Houston for the convention's annual meeting, and instead of keeping troops in Iraq, they said the United States should deploy forces to Sudan to stop the killing of black Muslims by Arab militias.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention, which grew out of the civil rights movement, represents more than 1,100 black churches. Jesse Jackson addressed the group Aug. 5, criticizing President Bush for getting America into a "tragic losing predicament" in Iraq.

CLERGY LEADERSHIP NETWORK FALTERING -- The Clergy Leadership Network, which at its founding sought to become "the Christian Coalition of the Left," is sputtering. The group experienced a disappointing turnout at its inaugural conference in Cleveland in May, with fewer than 100 people attending to hear about practical ways to influence the presidential election, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The network's former executive director, Brenda Bartella Peterson, resigned from her post as director of religious outreach for the Democratic Party after just two weeks on the job. She had faced overwhelming criticism for supporting removal of the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

An investigative report by The Center for Public Integrity indicated the Clergy Leadership Network also may be in financial trouble as a July 9 update showed the network had spent more than $65,000 so far in 2004 and only raised $20,000.

MORMONS FLOCKING TO ILLINOIS -- More than half a million people have visited and about 300 Mormons have moved to the tiny town of Nauvoo, Ill., on the Mississippi River during the past two years. Nauvoo was the center of the Mormon world in the 1840s after Joseph Smith led a delegation of followers from New York to Illinois. The group built a large temple, and the town's population swelled to 10,000, making it second only to Chicago in the state, before dropping off to 1,100 today. Nauvoo is also where Smith was killed, and a statue was built in his honor.

A July 29 report by The New York Times focused on the Mormon revival taking place in Nauvoo after the temple was rebuilt two years ago. Many Mormons are returning to their roots by visiting the place their ancestors settled before heading to Utah.

"It's a sacred place to us, a place of sacrifice," Samuel Park, president of the Illinois Nauvoo Mission, which oversees the church's operations, told The Times. "We're coming back here, and we want to stay."

Although the Illinois legislature recently passed a resolution apologizing to Mormons for the way they were treated there in the 19th century, many local residents do not welcome the Mormon resurgence. One told The Times, "The only way to get along with [the Mormons] is to do what they want." The mayor of Nauvoo resigned in April after 12 years in office because he disapproved of the ways the town is changing, The Times said. And local Christians are doing what they can to expose the truth about Mormonism.

"If they're following Joseph Smith, they're not following the God of the Bible," said Colleen Ralson, a former Mormon who now spends her days at the Nauvoo Christian Visitors Center telling everyone who stops by of the Mormon religion’s aberrations from historic Christian faith.


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