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Christian-Jewish Relations: Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center

by David Krusch (July 12, 2006)

The Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, founded in 1989, is an Arab Christian non-governmental organization based in Jerusalem. According to its web site, the group is “an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians...and strives to empower the Palestinian community as a whole and to develop the internal strengths needed for participation in building a better world for all.” Sabeel is an Arabic word meaning “the way” or “spring of life-giving water.” 

The organization is also outspoken in its criticism of Israel and its government. It has been one of the main coordinators for anti-Israeli advocacy among U.S. churches, and has been a leading proponent of divestment (which the group calls “selective divestment”) from Israel. Several Protestant church groups that have expressed support for divesting from Israel, such as the World Council of Churches, the Anglican Church of Britain, and the Presbyterian Church, quote Sabeel publications in their divestment statements.

Sabeel also supports a “one state solution, two nations and three religions,” meaning that it advocates the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. “Indeed,” claims its publication Cornerstone, “the ideal and best solution has always been to envisage ultimately a bi-national state in Palestine-Israel where people are free and equal...”

Sabeel was founded by Rev. Naim Ateek, former canon of St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem, who has been quoted as saying that “Israel is creating Bantustans (mini-homelands) for the Palestinians and an Israeli form of apartheid that is much worse than what was practiced in South Africa.” Ateek claims that Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands “continues to be the root cause of the violence and terror.” He also used classical anti-Semitic themes in his writings, such as labeling Jews as “Christ-killers.” In a 2001 Easter message, Ateek wrote, “it seem to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him...the Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.” In a 2001 sermon, he accused Israel of placing a “large boulder...that has metaphorically shut off the Palestinians in a tomb...similar to the stone placed on the entrance of Jesus’ tomb.”

Ateek also believes the United States supports Israel because America has an influential Jewish population and contributes money to U.S. leaders who set policy. Featured on Sabeel’s web site as the only article in the “Articles” section is the widely-discredited paper “The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who falsely claim the “centerpiece” of America’s Middle East policy since 1967 has been its relationship with Israel.

According to the organization, the U.S. also has a large population of Christian Zionists who support Israel. At Sabeel’s April 14-18, 2004 international conference in Jerusalem, a statement was drafted labelign Christian Zionism as “heretical...We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as a false teaching that undermines the biblical message of love, mercy and justice.”

In 2002, Ateek wrote that suicide bombings were the result of the despair caused by Israel’s occupation. Although he was quoted as saying suicide bombing was “a crime against God,” he also expressed understanding for Palestinians who “feel they have no options and very little to lose.”

As for the collapse of the peace processs, Sabeel says “Israel succeeded in obstructing and derailing the Oslo Peace Process, blaming the Palestinians for its failure,” and “it is capable of doing the same with the Road Map.”

“The Jerusalem Sabeel Document” outlines some core beliefs of the organization: “Palestinian refugees have the right of return....The Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are illegal.” The document also states that “Israel must admit that it has committed an injustice against the Palestinian people and must accept responsibility for that. This means that reparations must be paid to all Palestinians who have suffered as a result of the conflict since 1948...”

While Sabeel masks itself as a pro-peace Christian group invested in the Palestinian cause, its publications, conferences, and group web site are actually platforms for espousing extremist anti-Israel views.

Sources: Anti-Defamation League; Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs; Mark D. Tooley, “Liberation Theology in the Middle East,” Front Page Magazine, (May 23, 2006); Sabeel