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Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder

The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem, an Arab Christian group that has been a proponent of the Palestinian cause, is a fierce critic of Israel and its government - and a driving force behind the campaign by mainline Protestant churches to divest from Israel.


In calling for divestment, Sabeel claims that "for many years the Palestinians rejected the establishment of the state of Israel because it was founded on the denial and violation of Palestinian's rights" a distortion of historical facts. Other provocative anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements by Sabeel include:


  • "Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that). God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp, in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed."

  • "The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull," referring to the hill where Jesus was crucified by the Romans.

  • The group expresses "fear" that the Palestinian Authority "might be forced to accept an unjust peace which will be attractively packaged by the state of Israel and the United States government." It calls for the creation of "one state for two nations and three religions."

  • Asked why the United States has strongly supported Israel, Sabeel's director said America has a large and powerful Jewish population that influences the nation and contributes money to congressional leaders who set policy.  He also said the U.S. has a large population of Christian Zionists who blindly support Israel.

Sabeel is an Arabic word meaning "the way" or "spring of life-giving water." 


The Sabeel Center was founded in 1990 following a conference which, according to the group's web site, www.sabeel.org , "placed Palestinian Liberation Theology in relationship to other Liberation Theologies from around the world."  The group describes itself as "an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians which encourages women, men, and youth to discern what God is saying to them as their faith connects with the hard realities of their daily life of occupation, violence, discrimination and human rights violations."   


The group's director is Rev. Dr. Naim Stifan Ateek, 68, former canon of St. George's Cathedral in Jerusalem.  "The Christian Century" magazine of June 17, 1998 interviewed him following the Center's 3rd international conference, held in Bethlehem.  He was asked about alleged persecution of Christians by Muslims, and said: "From the perspective of Palestinian Christians, occasional incidents of conflict are being hyped as a way of diverting people's attention from the real causes of conflict here.  The real barrier to peace is the extremist Israeli government… For Palestinian Christians, the Israeli government is the oppressor, not Islam.  Palestinian Christians have lived with Islam for 1,400 years.  [So] we do not find that our basic problem is with Islam.  Our basic problem comes from Israel's political injustice toward all Palestinians…."


The Sabeel Center has support groups in the United States and Canada.  The U.S. group is called Friends of Sabeel--North America.  The Canadian group is called Friends of Sabeel.


Friends of Sabeel--North America describes itself as promoting "awareness and understanding of the conflict between the Palestinians and the State of Israel through educational programs for North American Christians, engaging them and their churches in efforts to nurture relationships with the indigenous Palestinian Christians of Palestine whose existence is threatened by political conflict.

The Anti-Israel Divestment Campaign


The Sabeel Center's campaign to encourage churches worldwide to divest their investments in companies doing business with Israel, was spelled out in its April, 2005 report  "A Call for Morally Responsible Investment: A Nonviolent Response To The Occupation."  It claimed that "The international community has been helpless to prevail upon Israel to halt its oppression of the Palestinians.   As churches examine their own investment policies and show willingness to make moral and ethical investment decisions, they pick up where the political global community has failed to date." 


The report called on churches to "exert pressure on companies and corporations to discontinue business activities that, among other things, "provide products, services or technology that sustain, support or maintain the occupation," and added: "When such pressures fail to yield positive results, Sabeel calls on churches to divest/disinvest from companies and corporations that do not respond and comply …."


In a commentary in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (April 13, 2005), Ateek, promoted the anti-Israel divestment campaign.  He said that "the challenge is for the churches, indeed all people of conscience, to consider seriously the issue of morally responsible investment."  He declared: "It is clearly demonstrated that Israel, in its continued occupation and the practices associated with the occupation, is in open violation of international law…  Earning money through investment in companies whose products and services are used in such a way as to violate international law and human rights is equivalent to profiting from the oppression and suffering of others." 


 Ateek added that, "Around the world, people are beginning to speak of selective divestment from Israel as a method of creating the change that is needed."  He said such a stand "leads us to responsible stewardship in the investments we make as individuals, churches, institutions and corporations."


'The Jerusalem Sabeel Document'


The group's "Principles For A Just Peace In Palestine-Israel" which is also known as "The Jerusalem Sabeel Document," states: "Israel must admit that it has committed an injustice against the Palestinian people and must accept responsibility for that.  This means that reparation must be paid to all Palestinians who have suffered as a result of the conflict since 1948 whether they are Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, or Palestinians living in the Diaspora."  It also states: "The Palestinians must have their own sovereign, independent and democratic state established on the whole of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East JerusalemIsrael must withdraw to the June 4, 1967 borders.  No solution is acceptable if it does not guarantee the Palestinians' and Israelis' right to self-determination, independence, and sovereignty."


Sabeel's statement of principles continues:  "Jerusalem's sovereignty must be shared by the two states of Palestine and Israel.  The city must remain open for Palestinians, Israelis, and all.  East Jerusalem can be the capital of Palestine while West Jerusalem can be the capital of Israel… All illegal confiscation of land or expansion of areas by Israel within the walled city of Jerusalem since 1967 must be reversed."  Similarly, on the subject of Israeli settlements, it declares: "All Israeli Jewish settlements on the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law" and "All the settlements built on Palestinian soil since 1967 must be part of Palestine."  It also declares that "The right of return to Palestinian refugees must be guaranteed according to international law" and "All refugees must be fully compensated."


The Sabeel statement expresses "fear" that the Palestinian Authority "might be forced to accept an unjust peace which will be attractively packaged by the state of Israel and the United States Government…  The confiscation of Palestinian land, the building and expansion of the settlements have never stopped.  Israel continues to insist that the settlements will remain under Israeli rule.  If this is done, Israel will maintain its military presence on the West Bank while allowing the Palestinian Authority to have autonomous rule over its own people.  The areas under Palestinian rule will be called Palestine.  They will have the semblance of a state but will exist under the suzerainty of Israel and will not enjoy genuine sovereignty.  What we are witnessing, therefore, is a Bantustan-type state, home rule, just like what was proposed by the former apartheid government of South Africa to its black citizens."  It adds: "Sabeel rejects outright this peace formula or any variation of it…." 


The statement concludes with a presentation of the group's vision for the future, which ultimately would entail the creation of a single bi-national state in place of the state of Israel.  "Our vision involves two sovereign states, Palestine and Israel, who will enter into a confederation or even a federation, possibly with other neighboring countries and where Jerusalem will become the federal capital.  Indeed, the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel where people are free and equal, living under a constitutional democracy that protects and guarantees all their rights, responsibilities, and duties without racism or discrimination."  The Sabeel Center describes this hoped-for new entity as, "One state for two nations and three religions."


'Christian Zionism' Attacked


At the Sabeel Center's April 14-18, 2004 international conference in Jerusalem of theologians, church leaders and peace activists, a statement denouncing "Christian Zionism" as "heretical" was issued. They condemned such theology for placing "an emphasis on apocalyptic events leading to the end of history rather than living Christ's love and justice."  They said: "We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that undermines the biblical message of love, mercy and justice.  It was reported that the meeting was attended by more than 600 participants from 32 countries, half of them from North America, and that he group traveled to Ramallah and met with then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.



A 'Perspective' on Suicide Bombers


In a Summer 2002 "perspective" on suicide bombers on the Sabeel Center's web site, Ateek stated: "Historically, speaking, the Palestinians did not begin their resistance to the occupation with suicide bombings.  These came at least 25 years later when the political and security situation deteriorated considerably; and when it became certain that the international community is powerless to implement its own resolutions.  There were no suicide bombings before the Oslo Peace Process.  It is the result of despair and hopelessness that started to set in when an increasing number of Palestinians became frustrated by the deepening Israeli occupation and humiliation."  He said that young Palestinians "feel they have no options and very little to lose," having been "stripped of their human dignity, their only possibility for existence…to exist as slaves under an Israeli apartheid system of domination."


Ateek nevertheless declared: "Although some people in our Palestinian community admire the sacrifice of the suicide bombers and view it as the penultimate in the offering of oneself for the sake of the homeland and the liberation of the people; and although we understand its deeper motivation and background, we condemn it from both our position of faith as well as a legitimate method for resisting the occupation."  He said: "We condemn suicide bombings because they are a crime against God."  He further said: "In the midst of the injustice, suffering, and death inflicted on us, we believe that God in Christ is there with us.  Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that), God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed."


In December 2000, Ateek wrote that Palestinian Christmas celebrations were 'marred by the destructive powers of the modern-day 'Herods' who are represented in the Israeli government.'

In a February 2001 sermon he likened the Israeli occupation to the boulder sealing Christ's tomb." His 2001 Easter message called Israel crucifiers.



In a March 12, 2002 statement, "Remember the value of human life," posted on the web site of the World Council of Churches (www.wcc-coe.org), the Sabeel Center called on the global community "To protest Israel's brutal policy against the Palestinian people: the prolonged siege, collective punishment and humiliation of the whole population; To support the protests against the Occupation voiced by Palestinians and those Israelis who stand for a just peace; To request once again for international protection for the Palestinian people; To call for an end of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories."  It moreover called for them to "implement the United Nations Resolutions 242, 194, and 338 and other related UN resolutions (and the Geneva Conventions) immediately."   



The Middle East Road Map


A May 26, 2003 statement on the Middle East "Road Map" declared: "Sabeel's position is to welcome the Road Map as offered by the Quartet for implementation.  We are certain that Israel will do its best to change it or even to derail it.  As Israel succeeded in obstructing and derailing the Oslo Peace Process, blaming the Palestinians for its failure, it is capable of doing the same with the Road Map.  Indeed, the implementation of the Road Map is the litmus test for Israel's genuine intentions and commitment to peace."  It went on to say: "If the Palestinians are assured that by 2005 the Road Map, in spite of some meanderings, will lead to a viable, democratic, independent, and sovereign Palestine state on all the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war, and resolve the issues of Jerusalem, refugees, and settlements in accordance with UN resolutions, most Palestinians would enthusiastically support it."


A North American Speaking Tour


In the Fall of 2003 Ateek engaged in a speaking tour throughout the U.S. as a guest of the Presbyterian Church.  In Tulsa he spoke at College Hill Presbyterian Church and St. John's Episcopal Church. A newspaper account of his appearances said Ateek acknowledged that many Americans do not share his view that Israel is largely to blame for the situation in the Middle East, declaring: "We believe the original crime is Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands."  He said that suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis are the result of decades of domination of Palestinians by Israelis and that 95 percent of the resistance would end if Israel left the occupied territories.  He said the claim that Palestinians want to drive Israel into the sea, that Jews occupied a vacant land, and that Palestinians fled the land in 1948 are all myths.


Reportedly, when asked why the United States has strongly supported Israel, Ateek said that one reason is because the U.S. has a large and powerful Jewish population that influences the nation and contributes money to congressional leaders who set policy.  He said another reason is that the U.S. has a large population of Christian Zionists who blindly support Israel.  He defined Christian Zionists as Christians who "believe the Bible literally, and who believe that the creation of the nation of Israel in 1948, and all that Israel stands for and has been doing, are part of God's plan for history, ushering in the second coming of Jesus Christ."  He said: "It's very difficult to argue with people like that."  Ateek added that Jewish Zionists will not compromise because they want the entire Holy Land.  He added: "Religious Jews believe the land belongs to them, from God."

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