U.S. to Fund “Faith and Economics” Peace Plan for Israel-Palestine

News from the JTA:

The U.S. government will fund a new initiative that will examine bringing peace to the Middle East through faith and economics.

The plan was initiated by Rep Frank Wolf, who clearly has his finger on the pulse:

“If you’re Jewish, you have the Western Wall. If you’re Christian, you have the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If you’re Muslim, you have the Dome of the Rock,” he said. “We cannot work toward peace in the Middle East without taking into account the religious roots of its people. The U.S. government doesn’t have the capacity to deal with this reality in the lives of those who live in that region. That is why I have put together an initiative that includes the faith component.”

Ambassador Tony Hall will deal with the faith, while Dennis Ross will take care of the economics. And

…The program will be run under the auspices of a think tank, the Center for the Study of the Presidency.

USAID has apparently offered the Center a $1 million grant, with the backing of Condoleezza Rice.

But what will the programme do? Wolf’s website has some further details:

Dr. Bob Cooley, president emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, recently provided me some insightful observations about the faith dynamics in the Middle East. He has worked with Palestinian Muslims, Palestinian Christians, and Israelis during his 48 years of pursuing Hebrew Studies and Syro-Palestinian Archeology. He points out that the three major religious groups in the land are “all Sons of Abraham, who share a common understood relationship that serves as a basis for living together in harmony today.”

It is largely the past 50 years of failed politics that have undermined communal harmony in the region and modified the relationships between these groups. A complete copy of Dr. Cooley’s remarks about the relationships between these groups is attached to my statement.

(“Modified the relationships”?!)

Cooley’s remarks include the following deep insights:

It is true that religion can divide a society. This is no more true than in the Holy Land and the Middle East. Religious differences are sharp and deep.

…The veneration of holy sites and places is fundamental to identities, and they are multiple. The only solution is an open and free society that must be the goal of peace.

Tony Hall also explains his role:

…Our service is to support and encourage the people of faith who bear influence in the region. We are connecting with people of faith because as leaders of these communities they can either encourage the way of compassion, sacrifice and grace in this process – which is necessary to support a political outcome, or they can incite their people in the hopeless path of the status quo…The Abrahamic faiths have been in conflict for so long, that most of us have forgotten that at the core of them lies that universal commandment to “Love your neighbor.”

As well as explaining to faith leaders what the “core” of their religious traditions is, the Center for the Study of the Presidency will look at “medical and public health” issues. Also (link added)

…CSP will examine the possibility of using the Internet, interactive gaming (such as the recently released educational videogame on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entitled Peacemaker), and the development of telehealth projects to further the Middle East peace process.

The overall aim, says Hall, is to

…construct some good will that we hope may support a political settlement.

I can’t help feeling that this is all rather vague and platitudinous, and while a recognition of truly religious motivations is welcome, the message that the conflict is about “holy sites” and “religious identities” rather than military occupation and Palestinian dispossession makes one sceptical.

Wolf’s views on the role of religion in US foreign policy were laid out in an interview he gave last September to the PCR Project:

When asked how American policymakers use and understand religion in international relations, Wolf responded: “I think the government fears religion.” That fear makes American diplomats avoid thinking and talking about people’s religious motivations. Wolf believes that this avoidance of key issues prevents us from engaging strategically in conflict-prone settings. “If it’s true that these guys are blowing themselves up because of their faith, you have to deal with it.”

The Congressman said that addressing issues of faith does not mean proselytizing, but rather working on a faith-based level in order to build trust and open dialogue.

…”What we need within the government is a real faith dialogue.” Wolf spoke of the National Prayer Breakfast, and noted that a Moroccan leader who attended a recent Breakfast raved about the experience. He also praised friends and leaders who speak openly about their faiths and the faiths of others.

Wolf is known as an advocate of religious freedom, and in 1997 he pushed for the creation of an “Office of Religious Persecution Monitoring”, which eventually evolved into the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998. This 2001 article takes a sceptical view of Wolf’s political motivations:

In 1999, he delivered a number of harsh speeches accusing President Clinton of neglecting the Commission by delaying his appointments to it and by failing to include funds in his budget proposal (even though the latter had been prepared before IRFA was enacted).

But when the Bush administration let nine months pass without appointing an Ambassador-at-Large, Wolf remained silent. Nor did he react when the president was tardy in appointing Commission members. Nor did he or others complain, as they had during the Clinton administration, when the State Department failed to designate its “countries of particular concern” in a timely way.

However strongly Wolf and the religious right felt about religious freedom as a moral issue, one cannot help but observe their interest in exploiting it as a partisan wedge issue as long as they had a political opponent in the White House.

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