Posted on April 26, 2017 in Press Releases
ARAB AMERICAN INSTITUTE 
For Immediate Release
Contact: jsalan@aaiusa.org / 202-429-9210
James Zogby and Faith Leaders Discuss USCIRF Refusal to Address Israel’s Violations of Religious Freedom

Washington, DC – On Wednesday, April 26, James Zogby, President of the Arab American Institute who serves as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), was joined by Father Drew Christiansen of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs; Rev. Aundreia Alexander, Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus of the Reformed Church in America to discuss the refusal of USCIRF to examine Israeli violations of religious freedom. The event was held on the heels of the release of USCIRF’s annual report, which omits Israel’s violations.

For Zogby, a Maronite Catholic with family and friends in the Middle East, a PhD in Comparative Religion, and more than 40 years of work experience throughout the Arab World, the issues of religious freedom “are deeply personal.” However, he decried USCIRF’s refusal to take up repeated requests to examine reports of Israel’s violation of religious freedom. “This issue has to be talked about in a rational way. It doesn’t serve Israel to be silent. It doesn’t serve the mission of religious freedom to be silent. And, in particular, it doesn’t serve the victims, the folks who can’t travel, marry, have family unified or are losing their land or their rights. And if the Commission can’t be responsive to the mission and the violations of rights then what point is there.” Zogby’s official dissent to USCIRF’s most recent report, can be found here.

Father Drew Christiansen of Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs outlined the difficulties Christians face in terms of family unification, marriage, travel and study. He also addressed land confiscations and gave an example which separated a monastery from its convent school. Pointing to the reception Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch, Bishop Fouad Twal received from the Commission, he said “what was remarkable about PatriarchTwal’s meeting with the Commission was the skeptical and defensive way in which the USCIRF Commissioners received the Patriarch’s message. There was little if any effort to learn about his concerns, whether for Arab Christians living in Israel or Palestinian Christians living in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The bulk of their response at that time was to defend the government of Israel rather than support the victims of its policies.

Reverend Aundreia Alexander, the Associate General Secretary Associate General Secretary of the NCC, had tough words for USCIRF. “The hostility exhibited by USCIRF commissioners and staff to the very notion of carrying out a fair and impartial examination of the state of religious freedom in Israel is more than troubling and calls into question the credibility of the commission.” Alexander’s statement can be found here. 

Wes Granberg-Michaelson, General Secretary Emeritus of the Reformed Church in America, said “This is simply one more case where the issue of us being clear, that suffering in any place, that discrimination in any place threatens discrimination everywhere, particularly around the issues of religious freedom…. [We’re] simply saying this matter should be before the Commission in the same way this question occurs before the Commission from any other number of countries.”

The group also discussed this letter signed by dozens of church groups and NGOs expressing their concern over the Commission’s failure to address Israel’s denials of Palestinian religious freedom, and this report examining religious freedom in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. A summary of the report may be found by clicking here. In addition, speakers shared a 2014 memo outlining several cases presented to USCIRF by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Bishop Fouad Twal.

The briefing was streamed via Facebook Live and may be viewed via this link.

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Founded in 1985, the Arab American Institute (AAI) is a nonprofit organization committed to the civic and political empowerment of Americans of Arab descent.  AAI provides policy, research and public affairs services to support a broad range of community activities. For more information please visit aaiusa.org