Subject: NCC Weekly News: Middle East Delegation, Nobel Peace Prize

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A Message Following the National Council of Churches’ Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, September, 2017
From September 6-16 2017, a delegation of ten representatives of the NCC’s member churches traveled to Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel / Palestine on our first such official delegation in ten years. Bishop Darin Moore, NCC board chair, and Jim Winkler, NCC president and general secretary, led the delegation which traveled to the region to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian land, express solidarity with our ecumenical colleagues, witness for peace alongside interfaith partners, and observe current on-the-ground realities so as to better inform our ongoing advocacy.

In Lebanon, we met with leaders of the Middle East Council of Churches and the National Evangelical Church. In Egypt, we met with leaders of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Protestant Churches of Egypt, and a church-related humanitarian NGO, as well as with the Grand Mufti and other Muslim leaders. We also met with the Egyptian president, and with senior US Embassy officials. In Israel / Palestine, we met with the Heads of the Jerusalem Churches, as well as the president of a prominent Jewish religious academic institution. We also met with senior Israeli and Palestinian government officials familiar with the situation of religious communities there, and with senior US Consular officials and an official at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Additionally, we met with leaders of various Israeli and Palestinian NGOs.

A Message from Christian Brothers and Sisters in the Middle East
In each of the places we visited, a primary message Middle East church leaders send to the churches in the USA is a request for prayer for them and to stand in renewed, more pronounced solidarity with them. Fear, frustration, and anxiety among Christians, whose numbers are dwindling in the region due to extremist violence, political instability, and economic hardship, permeated the messages we heard from leaders. They shared the common human longing to be recognized with dignity and respect.

In Lebanon, church leaders asked for us to remember them as they face a rise in religious extremism and continuing challenges due to the presence of millions of refugees. We were in the Lebanon at a time of national mourning for ten soldiers killed by Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) which brought home to us the intense desire for a respite from ongoing war.

In Egypt, church leaders shared their concerns about the future of their country, given the many pressures it is facing. They expressed their dismay as they watch the experience of Christians in Libya and Syria. Indeed, they shared these anxieties even as they continue to give witness to the power of Christ’s love. At the Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Peter, we worshiped at Sunday mass in the sanctuary where thirty worshipers died and forty-seven were injured in a terrorist bombing last December 11. We heard the powerful message that families of the martyrs publicly announced forgiveness to the families of the suicide bomber. We were honored as well to dialogue with Orthodox and Protestant Christians and with Muslims, and to listen to their vision of respect for all faiths and opposition to fundamentalist extremism.

In Israel / Palestine, church leaders from Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions asked American churches to come to their support. In Israel, they called upon us to stand in solidarity with them as they feel under siege by a government that is encroaching on holy places in Jerusalem. In Palestine, they described for us the intensity of oppression in every area of life that they experience as second-class persons under occupation.

A Message from Christian Pilgrims of Peace to the Middle East

We believe that peace can only come from the transformative power of prayer to God.

We believe that our faith calls us to be active in the world, remembering our Lord’s teaching, “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”

We believe we are united with our brothers and sisters of the Middle East and must make their struggle our struggle.

We believe that Christians in the United States must be made more aware of the dire situation of our brothers and sisters in Christ in the Middle East and that education about their situation must be our priority for action.

We believe that that Christians of the United States must engage in pilgrimages both to the holy places and to the Christian communities in Palestine and Israel, to meet with the “living stones,” those Christians who live in those communities and are suffering discrimination and oppression.

We believe that Christians of the United States must engage in public policy advocacy that supports the well-being of our church members of the Middle East. This includes constructive remedies for the extremist violence and responses to human rights violations throughout the region.

We believe that Christians of the United States must more forcefully speak out against the oppression of the Israeli Occupation of Palestine that has weighed heavily on the churches and denied the rights and dignity of their members as well as of their Muslim brothers and sisters there.

We believe that Christians of the United States should explore new financial investment opportunities to support housing and job creation for Christians in the region.

We, the representatives of the 2017 National Council of Churches delegation to the Middle East, commit ourselves to be in solidarity with Christians of the Middle East and work for peace throughout the region as one of our highest priorities, and we invite member churches to work collaboratively with us to make real these words.

Nobel prize-winner ICAN says it will work for full nuclear ban

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) said Friday it will work tirelessly in coming years to ensure the full implementation of the nuclear ban treaty it assembled.

Beatrice Fihn, executive director of ICAN, said at a media conference at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva, “It is a great honour to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 in recognition of our role in achieving the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

Journalists covering all corners of the globe in Switzerland including the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Brazil and Mexico converged on the media conference at the Ecumenical Centre hosted by the WCC.

Opening the conference, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fyske Tveit said, “It is a very important day for moral standards in the word. It should be obvious that there should be no nuclear weapons…As people of faith we must say this together.”

The general secretary is a Norwegian Lutheran and he said, “I look forward to the day when my government will sign the treaty.”

Puerto Rican bishop: ‘This is a catastrophe’

The Methodist Church of Puerto Rico has activated an emergency strategy to respond to community needs following Hurricane Maria.

“My definition of the situation is the same as FEMA’s and other government entities,” Bishop Hector Ortiz wrote in an Oct. 4 letter explaining the church’s initial plans. “They have all said that ‘this is a catastrophe.’”

While the Puerto Rican church has the support of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, resources are limited for now. “The complexity of this catastrophe has delayed the support that we need,” the bishop said in the letter. “We have been out of power, out of communication, and many of the local routes are blocked or destroyed. It has been a big obstacle to complete an evaluation of the situation around our churches.”

The NCC's First Annual Ecumenical Awards Ceremony 
and Benefit Gala, part of the Christian Unity Gathering, 
November 8-10, Silver Spring, Maryland
California churches and presbyteries work to help those affected by wildfires

Northern California’s wine country has received the brunt of the massive wildfires that continue to burn out of control. More than 20 people are known to have died in the fires, while at least 285 remain missing. Authorities report 3,500 structures have been destroyed and over 170,000 acres burned.

“We have approximately seven congregations that are directly impacted by the fires. Of that number, we are aware of at least 50 homes that have been lost,” said the Rev. Dr. Robert Conover, stated clerk/executive presbyter of the Presbytery of the Redwoods in Napa. “In some cases, there are people who don’t know if their homes have been destroyed. They can’t get in to find out.”

Schools have been canceled in Napa County and some flights have been canceled out of San Francisco because of smoke in the area.

“The smoke in the air creates a very eerie feeling as the sun tries to shine through,” said Conover. “The color of the sky has this reddish-yellow hue to it. In general, the traffic is lighter except in areas where the freeway is bumper-to-bumper as people try to get around. There’s an emotional shift in the community collectively and you can feel that.”

Responding to court ruling on clergy housing

United Methodist clergy should hold tight, for now, after a U.S. federal judge struck down the law that gives clergy tax-free housing allowances.

That’s the advice of the Rev. Nate Berneking, an attorney and the director of financial and administrative ministries in the Missouri Conference.

“Come April 15, 2018, your 2017 taxes will almost certainly be just as they’ve always been,” Berneking wrote in his “Housing Allowance Case FAQ.”

“We would offer a word of caution to pastors and churches thinking of switching from a parsonage to a housing allowance. Given the uncertainty, it might be a good idea to wait for some clarity.”

Under a 1954 federal law, a “minister of the gospel” doesn’t pay income taxes on compensation designated as housing allowance. The Internal Revenue Service has traditionally interpreted “minister” broadly to encompass rabbis, imams and other religious leaders.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, sued the IRS and argued that the law discriminates against secular employees.

Rev. Traci Blackmon: It is up to US to stop gun violence

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. -Psalm 73:1-3

"The worst mass shooting in modern American history."

We’ve heard these words before. We’ve heard them far too often only to have the next mass shooting supersede the former. During the night, people attending an outdoor country music festival in Las Vegas unexpectedly found themselves assaulted by gunfire from the 32nd floor of the Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Early reports indicate this violence is the work of a lone, 64-year-old, white gunman equipped with multiple assault weapons. It is too early to know whether we will ever have knowledge of his provocation for this deadly act. It is too early to know what life experiences he may have had, or what propaganda he may have absorbed, that might have moved him from hateful thought to hateful action.

But what we do already know, even if we refuse to admit it, is that this lone gunman was able to execute at least 59 people, and wound over 500 more, because our nation’s absolute refusal to enact responsible gun legislation provides easy access to high-powered assault weapons used to kill human beings.

According to data gathered by the CDC, on average there are 12,000 gun homicides a year in the United States, and for every one person killed with a gun, two more are injured. What we know is that of the guns sold in the U.S. one in five are sold without background checks.

What we also know is that soon the predictable rhetoric exhorting the false notion that guns do not kill people will begin again, and gun lobbyists will line up to offer condolences for lives lost without offering proposals of any comprehensive gun reform to lessen the probability of this type of massacre ever happening again. What we know is we will spend our time analyzing the mental health of the shooter while excusing the moral decay of this nation.

Ecumenical Opportunities:

The WSCF seeks a regional staff person with a vision for nurturing dynamic ecumenical student movements in the US and Canada; committed to social justice; and desiring to work as part of an international team on global student concerns. This role will be under a 2-year contract with the opportunity to renew for a maximum of 8 years. Salary and Benefits are negotiable.

Serving as a leading voice of witness to the living Christ in the public square since 1950, 
the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) brings together 38 member communions 
and more than 40 million Christians in a common expression of God’s love and promise of unity. 
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