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Israel's assault on Lebanon was planned even before Hizbullah attacked and was aimed at driving a wedge between the different faiths that have been living in harmony in the country, a delegation from the World Council of Churches said on their return from a visit to Beirut and Jerusalem.
"We came back from Lebanon sharing the impression that this destruction was planned. And if the action by Hizbullah was the trigger, this was a planned operation all ready to go," Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the Conference of European Churches, told reporters in Geneva.
The Israeli Mission to the United Nations in Geneva declined to comment Wednesday afternoon because they had yet to see a written statement from the council, but the mission was closed by the time a statement was issued and by then no spokesman was available.
"The representatives of Lebanon's various communities with whom (we) met had all agreed that the destruction was both deliberate and planned," said the joint statement issued by the council and other sponsoring church bodies Wednesday evening, summarizing the news conference.
De Clermont, a retired pastor of the Reformed Church of France, was part of a three-member delegation made up of Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy and an official of the council who met with religious leaders and senior Lebanese and Palestinian officials.
They regretted that the Israeli government did not receive them, but they did meet with Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger. The trio, which intended to show solidarity with the people in Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories, visited Beirut, Jerusalem and Ramallah in the West Bank during the five-day trip.
De Clermont, who spoke for the two other delegation members who joined him at a news conference in the world council's headquarters, said Israel would not want the existence of a democratic Lebanon where Jews, Christians and Muslims were peacefully living side by side, because it does not want to see its neighbor state succeeding in what Israel is unsuccessfully trying to achieve.
De Clermont said Hizbullah was a scapegoat.
"It is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not the role and actions of Hizbullah that is at the heart of the present crisis," the statement said.
"All the religious leaders in Israel and Palestine, as well as (Palestinian President) Mahmoud Abbas told us that the time has come to accept sitting down and negotiating with everybody," he said, adding that it was necessary to "demilitarize the thinking" of political leaders.
The delegation had hoped to meet with Israeli government officials and had been in touch with President Moshe Katsav and some ministers.
"There was no sign that the Israeli government noticed the presence of a delegation from the World Council of Churches, whereas (Lebanese) Prime Minister (Fuad) Siniora insisted on receiving us and stressed the importance of a spiritual message in these days of crises," de Clermont said.
The World Council of Churches represents 348 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches and works cooperatively with the Roman Catholic Church.