Two bishops have pulled out of a conference on the Holy Land to be held in Gateshead next month, after warnings that it would be biased against Israel.
The Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, Martin Wharton, and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, Seamus Cunningham, withdrew after pleas from the Newcastle Jewish community, the Board of Deputies and the Council of Christians and Jews.
The event has been arranged by the north-eastern branch of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel and Palestine (EAPPI), which sends volunteers to the West Bank.
Earlier this year, the Church of England’s governing body, the Synod, caused dismay within the Jewish community for endorsing EAPPI, which is viewed by the Board and other critics as partisan and inflammatory.
Bishop Wharton said he had taken his decision “for the sake of good relations between all the faith communities in Newcastle”.
Bishop Cunningham acted, he said, “after becoming aware that many Jewish people in the north-east were angry and upset. They feel that EAPPI speaks for only one side of a complex situation and that, as the conference is to be held on a Saturday, they could not attend and present an alternative view.”
The Catholic Church, he said, “has been committed to building bridges with Judaism since 1965. Rather than see those bridges weakened or even destroyed, I have withdrawn from the conference and it does not have the sponsorship of our diocese”.
Another pullout is Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann, of Israel’s Rabbis for Human Rights, who had been due to speak.
Other sponsors of the event include Christian Aid, Friends of Sabeel UK and the Catholic aid agency, Cafod. But the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which was to have presented a session on boycotting Israel, no longer appears among the sponsors.
Board of Deputies vice-president Jonathan Arkush said the conference had been promoted “to indicate the support of bishops for the extremist political agendas of organisations like PSC and Sabeel. I am pleased that, by withdrawing from this event, the bishops have shown that they are concerned about the future of relations between the church and the Jewish community in this country.”
But he added that the fact that just four months after the Synod debate EAPPI had chosen “to organise an event of this nature, inviting groups such as PSC and Sabeel, speaks for itself. Clearly this is a programme which has no intention of moderating itself to ensure balance and impartiality — a view reinforced by EAPPI’s complete refusal to seek input from the mainstream Jewish community.”