By Stefan J. Bos, European Bureau Chief with additional reporting by George Whitten, Middle East Bureau Chief
JERUSALEM/GAZA CITY (Worthy News) -- More than half of the United States' Lutheran bishops were on their way to Israel Monday, January 5, amid international concerns that an Israeli offensive against the militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip would lead to more suffering of civilians, including the territory's Christian minority.
The pilgrimage, planned for over two years and rescheduled to deal with the crisis, came as Israel's ground assault launched this weekend continued, with troops and tanks roaming the streets of Gaza, backed by air strikes.
Palestinian doctors said over 500 people died in some ten days of Israeli air strikes and the recent ground offensive, raising fears among advocacy groups and church leaders that especially Christians in the Gaza Strip were in the crossfire between Israeli attacks, and Islamic militants, seeking scapegoats.
The Gaza Baptist Church was seriously damaged last week in an Israeli air strike, and Christians were hiding in homes, advocacy group Open Doors said. There have been earlier reports of Islamic attacks against Christians in Gaza.
"They (Christians) are not part of Hamas, they’re not Israelis or they’re not Jewish, they’re not Muslim, they’re Christians," explained Carl Moeller, who leads Open Doors USA, in a statement.
Israel reported Monday, January 5, that one soldier was killed and about 30 injured in the ground operation, shortly after Hamas warned that Israeli soldiers would "find their cemeteries" in the world's most densely populated region.
In published remarks, Lutheran leaders said they hope their week-long trip to Israel shows their commitment to brokering a peaceful resolution in the troubled region.
"We who are global religious leaders right now have to continue to win the day from extremists," said Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, leader of the 4.7 million-member, Chicago-based Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA, America's largest Lutheran denomination and fourth largest Protestant church.
"We will try to do that by meeting with Jewish and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian leaders to hear and to listen and to commit to being partners in the struggle for a lasting peace, which we continue to believe is a two-state solution."
Protestant leaders said they have a duty to support the region's diminishing Palestinian Christian community, despite concerns among Jewish leaders it may lead to a bias approach of churches towards the conflict. There are up to 3,000 Christians still living in the Gaza Strip, although some church groups say that number may be smaller because many have fled the area.
The Lutheran bishops were invited by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and were scheduled to meet Palestinian Christians and other religious and political leaders.
"They have asked us to come walk with them in this difficult time," said Reverend Robert Smith, continental desk director for Europe and the Middle East in the ELCA's department of global mission. "It becomes our business because our Christian sisters and brothers have asked us to come. . . . With the decline of Palestinian Christian communities in the land where Jesus was born, died and resurrected, that call is not something we can ignore."
Earlier, the Vatican, patriarchs, bishops and heads of Christian churches in Jerusalem also pressed all parties to chose non-violent methods to resolve their disputes. "We also call on the international community to fulfill its responsibilities and intervene immediately and actively to stop the bloodshed and end all forms of confrontation," they said.
Signatories included the Catholic "Custos of the Holy Land," who oversee major Christian pilgrimage sites, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch and a bishop from the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
"We believe that the continuation of this bloodshed and violence will not lead to peace and justice but breed more hatred and hostility -- and thus continued confrontation between the two peoples," they wrote.
Over the weekend, Pope Benedict XVI, the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, called for an end to the fighting and issued a high-profile appeal for peace. He said all sides should abandon the "perverse logic of conflict and violence."
Besides religious and Christian leaders, officials from the European Union were due to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to discuss the crisis Monday, January 5.
Israel has said that regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, its tanks, aircraft and naval vessels will continue to attack militant targets, including rocket-launching sites and smuggling tunnels, until a solution is reached that will end cross-border rocket fire.
Hamas militants reportedly fired over 30 rockets into southern Israel since Sunday, January 4. However Israel has prevented foreign journalists from entering Gaza to cover the military campaign.
Israeli President Shimon Peres has denied the Jewish state wants to reoccupy the Gaza Strip, saying the operation is aimed at ending the Hamas attacks. However Palestinian officials, including Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erakat, said the humanitarian conditions in Gaza are too dire and that Israeli attacks must stop immediately.
Open Doors President Moeler stressed he was also concerned about the impact of the "overwhelming firepower" of Israel's military on Christians and other civilians, many of whom have reportedly been used as human shields by Hamas.
He said he understood the Jewish state's need to defend itself, “but it does not make it right, however, to retaliate with overwhelming firepower against Gaza citizens.” Yet, another Christian advocacy group, U.S.-based Christians for Fair Witness on the Middle East, said it understood Israel's need to use force, despite the impact on civilians, including Christians.
“Israel's attacks in Gaza involve civilian casualties, although that is not their purpose. At every stage -- deployment, preparation, and design – Qassam are in such proximity to residential populations that even well targeted strikes bring calamitous results," it said. "But the aim of Israel is not the elimination of Gaza, but the end of Qassam attacks. The willingness of the Israeli authorities to halt their attacks in the hope that Qassam sites will be dismantled is a positive development."