PARIS - The World Council of Churches, the main global body uniting non-Catholic Christians, encouraged members earlier this week to sell off investments in companies profiting from Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The Council's Central Committee, meeting in Geneva, praised the United States Presbyterian Church for examining the possibility of divestment in Israel similar to the financial boycott it used against the apartheid regime in South Africa two decades ago.
The Presbyterian threat, which echoes divestment debates at some U.S. universities, has set off a wave of dissent in the church and angered American Jewish leaders.
But the Central Committee, in a document approved at a week-long meeting at WCC headquarters that ended on Tuesday, highlighted the divestment push and encouraged other member churches to consider doing the same.
"This action is commendable in both method and manner, uses criteria rooted in faith, and calls on members to do the `things that make for peace'," it declared, quoting St. Luke's Gospel. "Economic pressure, appropriately and openly applied, is one such means of action."
It was not clear how many of the WCC's 342 Protestant and Orthodox member churches would heed the call.
"Multinational corporations have been involved in the demolition of Palestinian homes," the WCC statement said, adding that they were also involved in "the construction of settlements and settlement infrastructure on occupied territory, in building a dividing wall which is also largely inside occupied territory, and in other violations of international law."
The Presbyterian Church's General Assembly last July called for a "phased, selective divestment" beginning no earlier than July 2006. A dissident group is asking church leaders to place a moratorium on the project as early as next month.
No companies have been singled out, but a report naming the most likely targets is due in August.
Human rights groups have urged Caterpillar Inc., the world's largest maker of construction machinery, to stop selling bulldozers to the Israel Defense Forces, saying they are used to wreck innocent Palestinians' homes in Gaza and the West Bank.
The occupation "is at the center of the cycle of violence in the region, whether it is suicide bombings or the displacement caused by the occupation... and impedes a peaceful solution to that conflict," the committee now selecting possible divestment targets said recently.
It is unclear how much of the church's $8 billion portfolio - investments covering pensions and other holdings controlled by its leadership - might be at issue.
Jewish groups are clearly upset.
"Instead of talking about peace, we're talking about Presbyterians," David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said this month. "They have deflected conversation in a very negative way."
The move was also condemned by the Anti-Defamation League. "As we have said repeatedly in conversation with Presbyterian Church leaders," National Director Abraham Foxman said in a statement, "divestment policies are counterproductive and a detriment to the newly revived peace initiative between the Israelis and Palestinians, and fundamentally flawed as a mechanism for resolving the conflict. Divestment hurts not only Israel, but has economic impact on Palestinians as well."
The 2.5 million-strong church, the ninth largest in the U.S., represents most U.S. Presbyterians.
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