Executive Council adopts statement on Holy Land war after debating use of term ‘potential genocide’

By David Paulsen
Posted Apr 22, 2024

A Palestinian man, Ali Oroq, carries a water container as he walks at a school sheltering displaced people in Gaza City on April 16. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Executive Council voted overwhelmingly April 20 in support of a resolution lamenting the ongoing deadly violence in the Holy Land since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, though some council members raised concerns about the resolution’s reference to the “potential genocide” of Palestinians.

Other council members questioned whether it was appropriate for Executive Council to approve such a statement just two months before the 81st General Convention will convene and consider a dozen of its own resolutions related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bishops and deputies are scheduled to meet June 23-28 in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Rev. Charles Graves IV, a priest in the Diocese of Texas who helped draft Executive Council’s resolution, urged its passage now – his voice breaking with emotion as he underscored the urgency and severity of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

“Two months is a long time in the middle of a war. Two months is a long time when children are dying every day,” Graves said. “Is it the judgment of this body that we should wait and be silent for two more months while children are dying every day?”

Executive Council is the church’s primary governing body between the triennial meetings of General Convention. It previously approved a resolution at its October 2023 meeting that condemned Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of more than 1,200 Israelis while also lamenting the thousands of Palestinians killed in the ensuing war by Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in Gaza.

Executive Council approved this newer resolution on the last day of its April 18-20 meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was its last scheduled meeting before the 81st General Convention. The resolution primarily affirms past statements released by other religious leaders, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the ecumenical group Churches for Middle East Peace and the leaders of Christian denominations in Jerusalem, who are commonly known as the patriarchs.

Executive Council’s statement “gravely laments the continuing violence, destruction and loss of life following the events of Oct. 7, 2023.” It goes on to call for an end to the violence, the release of Jewish hostages by Hamas, increased humanitarian aid for Gazans and a rejection of all forms of anti-Jewish hatred.

The Rev. Angela Goodhouse, a deacon from the Diocese of North Dakota, was the first to say she could not support the resolution, because she felt it would be more appropriate for Executive Council to defer to the wider representation of churchwide leaders who make up General Convention. It divides its authority between the House of Bishops and House of Deputies, with members from all 111 dioceses and mission areas.

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris acknowledged such concerns and asked the council to consider whether the statement crossed over a line into “something perhaps General Convention should be doing.”

The 12 resolutions that have been proposed already to the 81st General Convention respond to the conflict in the Holy Land from several angles. The first four resolutions went to a hearing last week on whether the church should label Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens a form of “apartheid.”

Some of the other resolutions address the latest developments in the Israel-Hamas war, while others offer broader perspectives on the violence and destruction. Resolution D013 acknowledges the historical scope of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict and renew calls for a lasting peace that includes creation of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Executive Council’s use of the phrase “potential genocide” generated the most debate before the April 20 vote. Matthew Taylor, a lay member from the Diocese of Washington, proposed striking that language from the resolution. “Sometimes it is better to describe what is going on,” Taylor said, rather than using phrases that might further inflame tensions in the Middle East.

The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, former bishop suffragan of North Carolina, affirmed that “our hearts are unanimously, collectively universally breaking” in response to the Israel-Hamas war. At the same time, she noted that the Jerusalem-based Christian patriarchs had not, to her knowledge, used the term “genocide.”

Thomas Chu of the Diocese of New York asked Curry directly about the presiding bishop’s decision to sign Churches for Middle East Peace’s March 26 letter to U.S. President Joe Biden, which suggested that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza and killing of thousands of Palestinians may rise to the level of “potential genocide.”

Curry responded that he agrees that Executive Council should be careful about the impact of its words, though he personally felt the language used by Churches for Middle East Peace struck the right balance.

“I would not have signed this if it had only said ‘genocide.’ It referred to ‘potential genocide,'” Curry said, adding that the deaths of Palestinian children weighed heavily on his mind. “This is innocence being killed,” he said.

Sandra Montes, originally from the Diocese of Texas and now in New York, said she would be in favor of using even stronger language, though she supported the resolution as proposed. “I am surprised and disappointed that we are having this discussion, because to me – this says ‘potential genocide.’ For me ‘potential genocide’ is the middle ground.”

Taylor, speaking against the resolution, questioned whether it would even achieve Executive Council’s stated goals. “We have no power over any entity that could stop this war,” he said. “I don’t know that this statement does anything to help the cause of the Diocese of Jerusalem or Christians in the Holy Land.”

Others referred to the personal perspective on the conflict shared with them by a Palestinian priest in the West Bank, who joined one of the committee meetings by video earlier in the week. The priest told the committee’s members that even in the West Bank, Palestinians are under constant threat of violence.

“He is asking us to affirm what is going on there, to affirm the potential genocide of children,” said Lillian Davis-Wilson, a deacon in the Diocese of Western York. “We were in tears, watching this man ask us to affirm and support them.”

Executive Council’s final vote on the resolution was 24-2 in favor, with some members abstaining. The full text of the resolution has not yet been posted online but will be added here on Executive Council’s resolutions page.

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service based in Wisconsin. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.