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After Middle East trip, bishop to seek more US Involvement

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 5/26/2002

Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, who caused a stir last fall when he joined a protest outside the Israeli consulate in Boston, returned this week from a 10-day trip to the Middle East declaring that ''the situation in Israel and Palestine is worse than I thought.''

Shaw led 23 Episcopalians, most of them from the Boston area, on a trip that included an hourlong visit with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. He said he will immediately begin pressing the US government to do more to intervene in the Middle East. He said he will also try to bring Palestinians to the United States to tell their stories and will try to organize trips to the Middle East for young people and for a joint Episcopal-Jewish delegation.

''It is clear to me that the situation in Israel and Palestine will not change unless the United States government becomes more directly involved with the faith community,'' he said. ''We have to intervene directly because the mistrust between the Palestinians and Israelis is so deep that I do not see a way for them to live together without our support. The Israelis I spoke with do not trust the Europeans to help.''

The delegation visited numerous communities in the West Bank and met with Jewish peace activists, as well as an official of the Israeli government and the brother of a suicide bomber. Shaw said the group did not discuss the issue of violence with Arafat, but instead discussed the prospects for a Palestinian state and elections.

He said he was most disturbed by ''the sense of hopelessness on both sides,'' which he said he had not seen on three previous trips to the region.

Shaw, the 15th bishop of Massachusetts, is a monk who has made engaging in public policy issues a top priority since being elected bishop in 1995.

Two years ago, he garnered national attention when he signed up as an intern in a congressional office in Washington to learn more about how government works. He says he has been praying for peace, but that he also believes he must work to persuade the Bush administration to get more involved in pressing for peace.

His entry into Middle East politics has caused a stir in Massachusetts. Jewish leaders were irate that he and other Episcopal bishops chose to protest outside the consulate, and a group of local Episcopalians has begun to organize to express concern about what they perceive to be Shaw's tilting toward Palestinians in their conflict with the Israelis.

Shaw responded to those concerns this week, saying that he will endeavor to build better relations with the Boston Jewish community, and that he would like to organize a joint Jewish-Episcopal trip to the Middle East later this year. He invited Nancy K. Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, to a news conference he held this week to discuss his trip.

In his remarks, he acknowledged the pain of both sides, saying, ''I saw the fear in the eyes and faces of Israelis because of the awful suicide bombings ... At the same time, the Palestinians have suffered enormously from the occupation and the military actions of the Israeli government.''

Kaufman gave Shaw qualified praise, saying, ''I felt there was a real effort to try to better understand where Israelis are coming from and the pain they are feeling in their day-to-day lives.''

But she said that because Shaw's trip focused on Episcopalians in the Middle East, who are all Palestinian, he got a ''particular view of Israel.''

''I'm always optimistic for there being room for dialogue, and the fact that they really seem to want that is a good sign,'' she said.

Dennis B. Hale, an assistant professor of political science at Boston College who is active in the Episcopal-Jewish alliance, a group of people critical of Shaw's activism, said he remained concerned about why Shaw doesn't publicly criticize Palestinians for what Hale describes as persecution of Christians, and why the bishop is not more outspoken about persecution of Christians by Muslims elsewhere, such as in Sudan.

''If the bishop wishes to play a constructive role in the Middle East, he will urge all Episcopalians to reject the PLO and its allies, to reject Yasser Arafat and all that he stands for, and he will urge the United States to do the same,'' Hale said. ''There will be no peace in the Middle East until Palestinians have abandoned the mad dream of destroying Israel and driving the Jews from the region.''

Shaw said his critics are not paying attention to his efforts to be even-handed.

''I wonder if they've been to the meetings we've had, or have seen the work we've done,'' he said. ''We invite them to come and participate in the work we're trying to do.''


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