Swedish Jewish organization blasts church’s decision, saying it cements its image as anti-Israel, while some of the church’s own bishops label it a ‘one-sided fixation on Israel’.
STOCKHOLM – A decision by the Church of Sweden last week calling on ecumenical organizations to investigate Israel as an apartheid state has been condemned by the country’s leading Jewish body and members of the church itself.
According to the formal decision, the General Synod (the church’s decision-making body) has commissioned its Central Board to “raise the issue of scrutinizing the implementation of international law in Israel and Palestine, also from the perspective of the United Nations convention on apartheid and the definitions of apartheid in the Rome Statute.”
The church’s director of international affairs, Erik Lysén, told Haaretz that “the addendum suggests that the Central Board raise the issue with ecumenical organizations such as the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches. How the task is handled will be a matter for the Central Board to decide. There is no specific time frame for this.”
The latest decision, which was supported by members of the Synod who are part of Sweden’s Social Democratic and Center parties, has been criticized both within and outside the church.
Aron Verständig, president of the Council of Swedish Jewish Communities, said his organization found the decision unacceptable. He said the Church of Sweden “repeatedly chooses to criticize the only Jewish state, without criticizing any of Israel’s neighbors for the persecution that Christians are subjected to.” Verständig added that “the result of this decision is unfortunately that the image of the Church of Sweden having a strong anti-Israel approach is cemented.”
When asked if the decision was a result of the church’s will to protect Christians in the region or due to a more general political agenda, Lysén responded: “The members of the Synod who proposed the addendum argued in the debate that they were doing so out of a belief that the deteriorating human rights situation on the ground requires an investigation based on human rights and international law, and echoed voices of Palestinian Christians, as well as Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights groups who call for international action.”
The Church of Sweden, which has been active in the Middle East region for many years, publicly supports a two-state solution based on the armistice demarcation line before the 1967 Six-Day War. It calls for an end to “Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” for “a return to talks and negotiations based on international law,” and for both sides to end violence and respect human rights.
In the past, the church has claimed that “methods that prevent financial support for the occupation are legitimate ways of working for peace.” At the end of last week, the church’s head, Archbishop of Sweden Antje Jackelén, informed Verständig that she was personally opposed to the decision. However, she added in an open letter published on the church's website, that “an image of the decision is now being spread that is not entirely correct, and which can easily lead to misunderstandings and overinterpretations.”
Jackelén wrote “it is the use of the word ‘apartheid’ that provokes anger and sadness. I myself would not have used the word in this context. But I am also aware that Israeli and other human rights organizations such as B’Tselem, Yesh Din and Human Rights Watch have used the term in their reports.
“The decision also raises the issue of an examination of how the Palestinian Authority and Hamas live up to international law,” she continued. “Even though I think the wording is unfortunate, it is clear to me that the church council’s decision is in no way directed at Jews as a people, either in Sweden or in Israel, nor at the State of Israel.”
Other senior figures within the Church of Sweden were even more critical. “As bishops, we love our church and support its structure. This doesn’t prevent us from strongly distancing ourselves from the decision taken by the council,” wrote Åke Bonnier and Sören Dalevi, two bishops who mentioned the split vote at the church council. In "Kyrakans Tidning", a Swedish weekly newspaper which focuses on church issues, they stated that “103 members chose to vote against the proposal. As a church, we simply don’t agree on this issue. Why does the council so often pass motions concerning Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East? After all, there are 195 other countries in the world to choose from. Why is it never exercised over Belarus, Ethiopia, the U.S., China, Russia or any of the abominable dictatorships surrounding Israel? We note that this one-sided fixation on Israel does not directly contribute to improving relations with the Jewish state or with our Jewish siblings.”
As part of its involvement in the region, the Church of Sweden backs various organizations and projects, some of which support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The church has often been accused of being anti-Israel and a one-sided supporter of the Palestinians.
Lysén said the Church of Sweden “focuses its international engagement on countries where we have long-term development and humanitarian partners,” and rejected the notion that it was only focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said the church had raised issues of human rights violations in countries such as “Colombia, Myanmar, South Sudan, Tanzania, several countries in Central America and regionally in the Middle East. This is often done in partnership with ecumenical networks and alliances, and always with a basis in human rights and international humanitarian law.”
Responding to criticism of the decision, Lysén stressed that “the Church of Sweden’s position is not anti-Israeli and remains principled to human rights and international law – in Israel and Palestine, and in any other context where we work. We support and cooperate with both Israeli and Palestinian partners, all of whom work from a human rights-based approach. We remain committed to the rights of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people.”
The Church of Sweden is an evangelical Lutheran church with 5.8 million members (about 55 percent of Sweden’s population) and is considered a progressive and liberal church by international standards. It has ordained female priests since the late 1950s; recognizes and performs same-sex marriages; and its decision-making body, which consists of 251 members who meet biannually, is voted for in a democratic election in which all of the country’s major political parties are represented.
The General Synod elects the church’s Central Board, which is led by the archbishop of Sweden (Jackelén is the first woman to hold the church’s highest position). Until the start of the 2000s, the church held the position of state church, which explains the high membership numbers in a country that is extremely secular and in which only a small percentage of the population attends church services.
Until 1996, all newborn children were made members, unless parents actively canceled their membership. The church is involved in humanitarian work far from Sweden’s boarders, its self-proclaimed priorities including “gender justice and equality, safeguarding people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, basic freedom of religion or belief, just peace worldwide, fair and sustainable livelihood, and maintaining human dignity and human rights in emergency situations.”