Divestment backers challenge England's Church [pg. 8]

Supporters of divestment are challenging the Church of England's Ethical Investment Advisory Group [EIAG] after its decision to reject the church's call to divest from companies whose products are used by the Israeli government in the territories. In February, the Church of England heeded calls from the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem for "morally responsible investment in the Palestinian occupied territories" and agreed to divest from companies, such as Caterpillar, "that profit from the illegal occupation." The Right Reverend Riah Abu al-Assal, Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, contested the Israeli government's use of Caterpillar bulldozers to demolish Palestinian homes and, in a vote, the Church of England voted to divest. However, last month the EIAG voted unanimously against the decision, saying it "could find no compelling evidence that Caterpillar is or has been complicit in human rights abuses." Two initiatives have surfaced in the last week to oppose the EIAG decision. The "Interfaith Group for Morally Responsible Investment" emerged last week under the auspices of Reverend Stephen Sizer, and War On Want, a UK-based charity, has opposed the EIAG decision by writing to the Church of England Commissioners. Sizer, the vicar of Virginia Water in Surrey, is an ardent pro-Palestinian campaigner and advocate of divestment whose writings include "Zionism and the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" and "Morally Responsible Investment in Palestine: The Case against Caterpillar." Signatories to the letter are a number of pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel charities and non-government organizations and Jewish signatories from the pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist camp. The letter, sent to the chair and secretary of the EIAG, insisted "the Church of England heed the call from our sister Church in the Middle East to make morally responsible choices in our investments in Israel and Palestine." Caterpillar products were used for "human rights abuses," Sizer said in the letter, asserting that, "at best, the Church of England is condoning these abuses and, at worst, is complicit [in them]." "Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel and the occupied territories are calling for action, people are dying, human rights abuses are being committed and the Church of England is currently profiting from that," he added. He insisted the advisory group "visit Palestine and see firsthand the devastation caused by the use of Caterpillar bulldozers by the Israeli military." Sizer met last week with the archbishop's assistant secretary for international, ecumenical and Anglican communion affairs, Reverend Anthony Ball, and the interfaith relations adviser for the archbishop's Council of the Church, Reverend Guy Wilkinson, to raise the group's concerns. Wilkinson minimized the importance of the meeting in a correspondence with coordinator of Anglicans for Israel Simon McIlwaine. "The meeting was arranged by one of my colleagues and I sat in on a limited part of it," he said. "The EIAG did not overturn the Church of England's decision on disinvestment, since there was no decision to overturn," he added. The other effort to reverse the EIAG's decision is being spearheaded by War on Want, a charity formerly led by British MP George Galloway that is very active in anti-Israel activities. War on Want collected 19 signatures from various Christian, Jewish and human rights groups from the pro-Palestinian side of the divide in its letter to the Church of England Commissioners. The letter maintained that 60 percent of Palestinians live in acute poverty, "[a number having] tripled in just over four years," and refers to "despair" and "human suffering" as a result of Israeli policies. "The causes of this poverty are not to be found in droughts, hurricanes or tsunamis. They are man-made, caused by the systematic de-development of the territories over the last 40 years, including theft and destruction by Israel of Palestinian land, water, food and homes," the letter states. It cites the "separation wall" and house demolitions as sources of poverty and blame Western governments for the success of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. War on Want routinely references Israel with terms such as "apartheid," "slavery" and "a heavyweight beating a child" while accusing Israeli leaders of attempting to simulate "the aftermath of a natural disaster for Palestinians." Alleging human rights violations, it has campaigned vigorously to suspend the Israel-EU trade agreement and called for sanctions against Israel. Last year, the UK Charity Commission warned War on Want about the impact of its political campaigning on status as a charity. Anglicans for Israel issued a statement signed by an array of supportive clergy, noting "with sorrow the latest attempts by certain members of our church to force the EIAG to shed its investments in Caterpillar and, in our view, undertake further measures to boycott Israel." Opposition also came from Reverend Jacob Prasch, director of Moriel, an organization active in campaigning for the human rights and religious liberty of Christians in Arab countries. In a statement, Prasch questioned the accusation that Israel was responsible for the despair and poverty in the Palestinian territories. "You may not be aware that, according to the World Health Organization, prior to the intifada standards of living including longevity, infant mortality and unemployment among Palestinians improved under Israeli rule 320% in the West Bank and by nearly 370% in Gaza," he said. "Conversely, the economic suffering of the Palestinian people is largely the result of the pilfering and looting of international aid given to the Palestinian Authority. I lived nine years in Israel and the West Bank as a Christian and I know these realities firsthand," he said. Citing numerous examples of Christian persecution around the world, Prasch said it was hypocritical to single out Israel for boycotts. "Only one voice is being heard in the formulation of your policies and it seems as if a fair and balanced representation of all the facts is not to be tolerated," he said. "Israel, safeguarding the rights and religious liberties of Christians, is demonized, while the Anglican Communion turns its back on the persecuted church throughout the Islamic world." "As a human rights activist I have seen 2.3 million black African Christians slaughtered and systematically driven to starvation in a wholesale act of genocide in Sudan by Islamic militias, 70,000 Christians killed by Islamic militants in the southern Philippines, 300,000 butchered by radical Islam in East Timor and by last count 68,000 - many of them Anglicans - in northern Nigeria," he said.