What Is the World Council of Churches?
The World Council of Churches was founded with a noble aim: to overcome the divisions of Christianity and restore the unity of purpose of Christ's original followers. After the retirement of its founding spirit, Willem Visser 't Hooft, it drifted away from its original concerns, a development that accelerated after his death in 1985. Today it has shrunk in effect to a small secretariat in Geneva that draws inspiration from its obsession with the Palestinian problem and has little else currently to its credit or discredit.
Original PurposeThe intention to create a World Council of Churches (WCC) was proclaimed at a meeting in Utrecht in 1938, where its first General Secretary, Willem Visser 't Hooft, was also appointed. Because of the Second World War, however, it was only in 1948, at its First Assembly, that the WCC was officially founded. Visser 't Hooft remained its General Secretary until 1966. Even after his retirement, he continued to wield considerable influence on its activities by serving as its Honorary President until his death in 1985.
During Visser 't Hooft's period, the WCC placed its greatest emphasis on the need to overcome the multiple divisions of the Christian world. Gradually, the membership was expanded to include numerous Orthodox churches as well as Protestant churches. From 1968 on, Catholics began to appear as observers at WCC meetings. The Vatican, however, has not allowed Catholic churches to join the WCC. It is only Old Catholics, who broke away from the Vatican in the nineteenth century, who have become full members of the WCC.
The peak of this period of the WCC's existence was reached in 1982-1983 with the publication of two documents: a statement on three key areas of Christian theology (Baptism, Eucharist and Mission: BEM) and a proposed common form of worship (the Lima Liturgy). BEM itself, while trying to identify common ground shared by most or all Christians, testifies to continuing differences. Little further progress has been achieved since then. Thus BEM, practically speaking, was both the peak and the end of this period of the WCC's existence.
New Management Takes OverA new period began with the appointment of Emilio Castro as the Fourth General Secretary of the WCC during 1985-1992. Social and political issues had always been a subsidiary concern of the WCC; their role had grown under Castro's immediate predecessor, Philip Potter (1972-1984). From now on, however, those issues became its most prominent focus. Increasingly, advocacy on behalf of the Palestinians and denunciations of Israel came to top the agenda.
During the last two decades, the WCC has created a whole family of offshoots devoted to the propagation of Palestinian aims. They typically carry imaginative names whose content, if any, is belied by their true character and by their activities.
Thus the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) was founded in 2002. Its website claims to have been "founded in response to a call from the local Heads of Churches in Jerusalem" and in order to "support the local churches." In practice, however, that long-ago request for help was used as an excuse and subsequently ignored; EAPPI's programs do little for local Christians, apart from promoting some Palestinian Christian intellectuals in good standing with the WCC.
The volunteers sent by EAPPI, so far nearly 1500 of them, creep into Israel in the guise of tourists, receiving a standard tourist visa of three months. Off they then go to the West Bank, where the WCC uses them as ignorant busybodies while having their heads stuffed with anti-Israel allegations whose veracity they have no opportunity to check. After their visit, they are obliged to spend another three months spreading their pseudo-knowledge among their own churches. Sometimes they have the further thrill of addressing politicians and parliaments, besides acquiring a lifelong status as "experts."
After arriving in the West Bank, these "Ecumenical Accompaniers" are taken to the checkpoints where Palestinian workers cross daily into Israel. As it happens, there is a highly effective Israeli NGO, Machsom Watch, that monitors those checkpoints. The activists of Machsom Watch speak Hebrew, of course, and have the telephone numbers of the relevant offices and of senior Israeli army officers. So they are able to intervene immediately whenever something is evidently amiss. The "Ecumenical Accompaniers" have none of the necessary inside knowledge, so they can only ignorantly watch or, worse still, agitate and harass. It does not cross their minds that it is a privilege for Palestinians to work in Israel for much higher wages than are paid by Palestinian businessmen.
Other activities include going for half an hour in the mornings and again in the evenings to the gates in Israel's lifesaving security barrier where Palestinian farmers living on one side cross to fields on the other. Or witnessing the demolition of the house of a Palestinian who murdered Israelis. None of this benefits Palestinian Christians, since the latter are neither farmers nor terrorists.
This author went to a meeting in which one of the early groups of "Ecumenical Accompaniers" was presented to a small local public. They proclaimed, of course, that they had come at the invitation of the local churches and described activities of the kind mentioned. Among the few local Christians present, a priest, asked them what contact they had had with the local churches. One volunteer spoke of having visited the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, another of the Anglican church in Zababdeh, and a third of visiting once an Anglican and once a Lutheran one. That was all (the vast majority of local Christians, of course, are Orthodox or Catholic). Rather than rebuking their pretensions, the priest -- who served as the ecumenical representative of the Greek Orthodox Church -- courteously told them that they would always be welcome if they found time to pay a visit.
Since 2007, the WCC has a "Palestine Israel Ecumenical Forum" (PIEF). Despite the grand title, its homepage makes it clear that it is entirely devoted to mobilizing Christians everywhere against "the occupation." Its creation was accompanied by the "Amman Call," a bombastic statement issued in July 2007 at the WCC's International Peace Conference "Churches Together for Peace and Justice in the Middle East." The statement called for the removal of Israel's security barrier, the main obstacle to Palestinian terrorism, and for the implementation of a "right of return" for Palestinians, that is, the creation of an Arab majority in Israel.
A follow-up to the Amman Call was the Kairos Palestine Document (KPD) of December 2009. As this author was able quickly to demonstrate, the WCC falsely pretended that the document had the endorsement of the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem. In fact, the scheme was organized by two WCC employees, Rifat Odeh Kassis and Yusef Daher. The only serving Head of Church among the document's list of authors was Lutheran Bishop Munib Younan, who subsequently asked for his name to be removed (but his name can still be found on internet in early reports such as this and this). Among the remaining authors, "Patriarch Michel Sabbah" was in retirement and "Archbishop Theodosios Atallah Hanna" has repeatedly been at loggerheads with his own Patriarchate.
Later the WCC promoted the "Bethlehem Call" (2012), a statement so extreme that it was disavowed ("Ich bin kein Vertreter des Bethlehem-Call" – "I am not a supporter of the Bethlehem Call") by KPD co-author Mitri Raheb, the Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem itself. Anyone familiar with Raheb's own rants against Israel will be astonished that even he can be outdone.
Besides serving as a repository for pro-Palestinian propaganda, the PIEF's subsidiaries include its "World Week for Peace in Palestine Israel" and its "Jerusalem Interchurch Centre" (JIC) run by Daher. The JIC does have a Council drawn from local Christians. Daher's procedure, as it emerged in a recent case, is to write statements, send them to council members by mail, and publish them as statements "from the Churches of Jerusalem" irrespective of whether those members ever get back to him. As Daher puts it, the statements are "shown" to the Council, but the Council is not convened to discuss, modify or approve them. Daher at first had a modest office in a basement flat in the Old City of Jerusalem, but since losing it he operates from a monastery. As Dexter van Zile has repeatedly documented, Daher also specializes in abusing the most solemn mysteries of Christianity, such as the Crucifixion, in order to promote an anti-Israeli agenda that includes anti-Semitic stereotypes.
As with other WCC schemes, the appearance is one thing and the reality another. Yet another such scheme is the "Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace" (PJP).
Why the Diversion of Purpose?That a pro-Palestinian agenda is now the guiding path of the WCC was confirmed by the appointment of its current Seventh General Secretary, Olav Fykse Tveit (from 2010 on), as well as by its most recent Tenth Assembly in 2013. Tveit was previously co-chair of the WCC's above-mentioned PIEF. The Tenth Assembly met under the rubric: "God of Life, lead us to justice and peace." Palestine featured prominently both in the workshops and in the statements adopted. For instance, only the State of Israel -- not for instance Assad's murderous regime in Syria -- was criticized in the Statement on the Middle East, which included the ludicrous claim that the "longstanding Palestine/Israel conflict... remains the core problem that is fuelling the logic underlying many of the conflicts in the region, putting at risk international relations and peace."
Several reasons can be given for this diversion of the WCC from its original main purpose. First, as noted, the theological discussions reached an impasse. This impasse was reinforced when the Orthodox churches that had joined the WCC began to worry that the WCC was trying to impose unacceptable views and behaviour upon them. Their worries were addressed by a Special Commission, meeting during 1998-2002, which recommended limitations on the nature of WCC statements and on decision procedures.
The second reason emerged after the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Many KGB documents came to light that revealed the extent of attempts by the KGB to manipulate the WCC through agents planted in the churches in Soviet-dominated countries. This process began when the Russian Orthodox Church joined the WCC in 1961 and got into full swing after Visser 't Hooft's retirement in 1966. In particular, one document claimed that at the WCC's Sixth Assembly in 1983 no less than 47 KGB agents were engaged in ensuring that an "acceptable candidate" emerged as the new Secretary General. That is, in the appointment of Emilio Castro. Also the WCC's Fifth General Secretary, Konrad Raiser (1993-2003), admitted after his retirement that the WCC had been lax in addressing the persecution of dissidents, including Christians, in the Soviet Empire.
Third, the WCC hardly has any other remaining reason for its continued existence. Back in 1948, it was both rare and difficult for the leaders of diverse churches to meet. A General Assembly of the WCC made the unusual possible and exciting. In the meantime, thanks to cheap airfares and changing priorities, church leaders constantly get together without help from the WCC. Thus Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was the first Pope to leave Italy since 1809, but Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), an avid traveller, is said to have been seen in person by more people than anyone else in history. Likewise, the current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and recent Archbishops of Canterbury have been constant travellers. Summit meetings of churches in countries and continents are a commonplace.
If the WCC ceased to exist, few would miss it today. The WCC has become one more NGO that survives largely on magnifying the Arab-Israel conflict at the expense of other conflicts in the world. In contrast to the resources lavished on "Palestine," the WCC has devoted only occasional words -- and not a single "Ecumenical Accompanier" -- to the millions of Christians recently displaced from or killed in other Middle East countries.
Back in 2002, when the tension between Orthodox and Protestant member churches was at its height, the Bulletin of the German Protestant Churches was prompted to ask: "Will the WCC become superfluous?" The WCC survived only by starkly reducing what little interchurch activity that remained, such as joint worship at its conferences, and seeking unity elsewhere: in a crescendo of joint agitation on behalf of Palestinian aims. The switch testifies that the answer to the question was "Yes."
Fourth, and maybe most fundamental, is the organizational structure of the WCC. Its General Assembly is theoretically its sovereign body, but this meets only once every seven or eight years to elect a Central Committee. The latter, too, meets only once every two years, to elect an Executive Committee, which meets twice a year. Consequently, the WCC's Secretariat in Geneva, which runs day-to-day activities, has immense freedom to pursue agendas of its own devising. All the more so, since it is the Secretariat that prepares in advance the agenda, statements and decisions of the Committees and the Assembly.
A related question is the financing of the WCC. I was once told by someone who had worked at the Secretariat that many member churches pay no dues, but that this does not matter because a foundation supplies a considerable income. While we are not in a position to verify such claims, NGO Monitor's web page on this matter shows that current finance comes largely from a small number of mission organizations affiliated with European Protestant churches. These mission organizations themselves are usually dominated by small groups of individuals who share the agenda of the WCC's Secretariat and sometimes go on to work there themselves. In 2015, the last year for which NGO Monitor has given figures, the biggest contribution by far (some five million Swiss Francs) came from Brot für die Welt, for which all the German Protestant churches collect money at Christmas.
The Appearance and the RealityThus there is a vast gap between the appearance and the reality of the WCC. The appearance is the claim that the WCC consists of hundreds of churches in over a hundred countries working for Christian unity. The reality is a small Secretariat in Geneva financed chiefly by some handfuls of European Protestant bureaucrats. That is, if the State of Israel has problems with a vociferous clique in Geneva, it need not greatly fear that it risks offending Christians worldwide, provided that the State of Israel can clearly document that it has right on its side.
Indeed, Israel has begun to overcome its fearfulness toward clerical Christian antagonists and occasionally even refuses entry to the most obnoxious of WCC-sponsored visitors. Israel's will to do so was strengthened when in 2016 someone supplied an electronic copy of a WCC document that instructed visitors how to dissemble before the immigration officers at Israel's airports. (This author was also sent a copy of the file; its internal characteristics confirm that it was created on a WCC computer.)
Yet another question is how much the member churches pay attention and respond, if at all, to the propaganda issuing from Geneva. The same goes for another Geneva-based organization, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which is staffed by like-minded people coming from the same church organizations that mostly finance the WCC, and which promotes a similar pro-Palestinian agenda.
In 2013, the LWF proclaimed a scheme for making the twenty-fourth of every month a special "prayer vigil" for "ending the occupation of Palestine." It took up a scheme initiated on the previous Christmas Eve, December 24, by the Act Palestine Forum (APF), a group that subscribes to the WCC's Kairos program and is financed by the same donors as the WCC itself. APF claimed to be acting at the urging of the churches of Jerusalem, but the relevant page on the APF website names only nine parishes or organizations in Jerusalem that have affiliated with the initiative, all of them connected with the WCC or the LWF. Remarkably, of the 64 that have signed up worldwide during more than four years, not one comes from Germany, the heartland of Lutheranism. The LWF President at that time, by the way, was the above-mentioned Bishop Munib Younan (2010-2017) of the Palestinian Lutherans.
Latest OutrageThe same lack of impact may be true of the WCC's 2016 pro-Palestinian initiative, among the most outrageous ever. It asked all of its 354 member churches, totalling half a billion Christians, to spend the seven weeks preceding Easter 2016 by holding services in which they would solemnly denounce the alleged theft of Palestinian water by Israel. The scheme was launched in the Jerusalem church of the Palestinian Lutherans and was presided over by Bishop Munib Younan. The WCC's General Secretary, Tveit, preached the sermon. How many parishes elsewhere took up the WCC's lead has not been established, but 64 may be the upper limit in this case, too. Again, out of the thousands of parishes of the hundreds of member churches of the WCC, that would not be very much. It suggests that the WCC's attempt to escape insignificance by diversifying into pro-Palestinianism is a fiasco.
The sermon contained, in particular, two shameless deceptions. One was the outright lie that "80% of the ground water from Palestine's mountain aquifer is pumped underneath all the way to Israel." The same lie was chanted during the service on the authority of Younan.
The other deception was Tveit's claim that "the average per capita water consumption in London is 150 litres/day compared to that of only 70 litres/day for an average Palestinian. On the other hand, the per capita consumption for Israel is 300 litres/day." What is wrong with this claim is not that the figures cited may be false or grossly misleading (the figure for China is similar to that for the Palestinians). Wrong is that the claim is totally irrelevant as an attempt to make Israel responsible for any lack of water for Palestinians.
The truth of the whole issue of Palestinian water can be explained in a few sentences for those who are ready to think clearly as opposed to being swept away in floods of emotions. The central fact is just this: that a considerable amount of rainwater that falls in the mountains, where the Palestinian Authority holds sway, passes underground though aquifers that surface at springs in Israel. Thus the one responsible for this falsely called "pumping" is not Israel but the Creator of the World; Tveit and Younan should address to Him any indignant chants of culpability.
This phenomenon has known parallels in other regions; the standard solution is negotiations between the land of origin and the recipient land, whereby the latter contracts to return a certain proportion of the rainfall to the former. The issue was resolved in 1995 as a part of Oslo II, whereby Israel contracted to supply an annual quantity of water from its springs to the Palestinian Authority. Israel has faithfully fulfilled that obligation ever since. And that is the end of the matter. (Those who nevertheless would like more details can find them here.)
Note that Israel's obligation is to return a certain quantity of the estimated actual rainfall, irrespective of whether there are 100 Palestinians or 100 million Palestinians. Consequently, the citing of per capita water usage by Palestinians and Israelis is utterly irrelevant. How much it works out per capita depends upon the Palestinian birth-rate, something for which Israel bears no responsibility.
After I pointed out the false denunciations of Israel in Tveit's sermon, he must have read it, since the WCC responded with an open letter to Gatestone, requesting a "dialogue." Only, this letter contained a further deception: the WCC claimed that all its figures come from United Nations sources. In fact, Tveit's sermon explicitly cited pro-Palestinian sources for its accusations against Israel. The WCC Secretariat, in short, is chronically economical with the truth. No dialogue is possible with such a body, as long as it seeks to mobilize the world's Christians to denounce Israel with mendacious and irrational chants.
Malcolm Lowe is a Welsh scholar specialized in Greek Philosophy, the New Testament and Christian-Jewish Relations. He has been familiar with Israeli reality since 1970.