NEW YORK // A broad group of more than 50 US Christian leaders yesterday wrote to Barack Obama, strongly supporting the president's efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and praising his outreach to the Muslim world. The letter was the strongest indication yet that a growing number of mainstream Christian leaders were preparing to break a silence maintained during the presidency of George W Bush as he pursued what many considered to be uneven policies favouring Israel, said a former adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Signatories included evangelical megachurch preachers, such as Bill Hybels and Joel Hunter, who are better-known for their conservatism on social issues, as well as Catholic, Orthodox and African-American leaders. Previous letters sent to Mr Obama and Mr Bush represented a smaller group of US Christians. The latest letter called on Mr Obama to help both Israelis and Palestinians achieve a two-state solution and to "make the difficult decisions necessary to achieve lasting peace and to hold both parties to account when they fail to honour their commitments".
"Your administration must continue to bolster Palestinian capacity to halt violence and continue to demonstrate firm dedication to a viable Palestinian state by exhibiting no tolerance for Israeli settlement activity," the letter said. Chris Seiple, who signed the letter and is president of the Institute for Global Engagement, a non-partisan think-tank that promotes freedom for all faiths, said the message to Mr Obama spoke for a "silent majority" of US Christians.
He said he sought to counter the belief of many in the Middle East and elsewhere that the failure of successive US administrations to reach a Middle East peace deal was because of the influence of Christian evangelicals, of whom only a minority are Christian Zionists and overwhelmingly support Israel no matter what its policies. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister, who has so far resisted Mr Obama's call to freeze settlement activity in the occupied territories, has forged close ties over the decades with Right-wing US Christian leaders.
"It would be morally irresponsible to not speak up in a balanced way," said Mr Sieple, who helped to galvanise the ad-hoc coalition behind the letter. "We're seeing a growing number of people, particularly young ones in their twenties and thirties, who are going back to the Biblical texts and the message "love they neighbour" and who want to engage with the Muslim world. "I also know a lot of dyed-in-the-wool Republican conservatives who are in support of a more nuanced dialogue that is honest with both sides. We've got to get away from the notion that any constructive conversation with Israel is anti-Semitic."
The letter was prepared before Mr Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo just days before the 42nd anniversary of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. It said the West Bank separation barrier, movement restrictions, home demolitions as well as Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza undermined those on both sides of the conflict who sought peace while strengthening hardliners. Concern was also raised about the diminishing Palestinian Christian community.
Washington was urged to support any future Palestinian unity government that was committed to peace with Israel as well as the Arab peace initiative, which offers full recognition of Israel in return for the creation of a Palestinian state. The Christian leaders also urged "immediate relief for the population of Gaza", which is still besieged by Israel. Palestinian observers have noted the issue of Gaza was noticeably absent from remarks made by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, at a joint press conference with Mr Obama in Washington last week.
"Israel always counted on having US Christians in their back pocket but the signatories to this letter are showing a different direction," said the former PLO adviser. "It will help to show Obama he has the political space to do what he wants." Mr Sieple hoped for concerted peacemaking sooner rather than later, warning the last time rising expectations were dashed was followed by the outbreak of the intifada in 2000.
Much speculation surrounds Mr Netanyahu's strategy, with some suggesting he was acting tough before eventually agreeing to concessions in an about-face similar to that made by Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister who before suffering a stroke in 2006 appeared to see the necessity of a Palestinian state. "Netanyahu doesn't kiss on the first date," said a Palestinian observer. email@example.com