A Baptist peacemaking group on Friday called on both sides of mounting tensions in the Middle East to back down from the brink of war and to negotiate toward a peaceful resolution.
A caucus of members of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, meeting in an annual peace camp in Atlanta, also called on the United States to "assist in the negotiating process by refraining from placing blame on one party over another."
Meanwhile, American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., International Ministries reported Friday that a missionary couple and a volunteer were safe following Thursday air strikes in the Middle East country of Lebanon on the capital city of Beirut.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese Islamic resistance group backed by Iran and Syria, on Wednesday abducted two Israeli soldiers during a raid into Israel. Israel responded by launching a military strike against Hezbollah, which as of Saturday had resulted in at least 82 Lebanese civilian and two Lebanese soldier deaths. Hezbollah attacks from southern Lebanon into Israel killed four civilians and nine Israeli military personnel, according to CNN.
President Bush blamed the violence on Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, and says Israel has a right to defend itself.
"The best way to stop violence is to understand why the violence occurred in the first place," Bush said during a news conference ahead of the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. "And that is because Hezbollah has been launching rocket attacks out of Lebanon and into Israel because Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers."
A Hezbollah guerrilla leader, meanwhile, declared "open war" on Israel.
The Baptist Peace Fellowship statement cites special concern that weapons being used by Israel in its attacks on Lebanon are supplied by the U.S. "Such usage of U.S. tax dollars to finance military operations against a civilian population is a specific violation of the U.S. Arms Export Control Act and the Geneva Conventions," it says.
The statement also condemns the taking of hostages, but says Israel's attack violates the principle of proportionality by targeting an entire civilian population over acts of a few.
"The targeting of a civilian population is not in keeping with the values of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, and must not be accepted," the statement says. "It is not defensive behavior, but is an offense against the high principles of all of these religions."
"Such collective punishment is a violation of international law, and it only perpetuates a cycle of violence," the statement also says. "Blaming the government of Lebanon for the actions of Hezbollah is counter-productive, as well."
The Baptist statement concludes: "Believing that peace is the highest value in all three monotheistic faiths, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America expresses its condolences to all of the families involved, and urges the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and the government of Lebanon, as well as any and all parties of non-governmental status, to exercise restraint, to step back from the brink, and to begin to negotiate wholeheartedly for an end to all regional hostilities.
"We reiterate that statements implying that one or another party is correct in its aggressive action against another are not helpful. No nation or group that takes out its anger on innocent civilians should ever be praised. We call on the U.S., and the United Nations, to use their good offices to intervene and prevent the escalation of this conflict into full-scale war."
American Baptist missionaries Dan and Sarah Chetti serve at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. Jennifer Wallace, from the First Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ohio, is currently a volunteer at the seminary.
International Ministries is continuing contact with Wallace, the Chettis and the seminary. Reid Trulson, IM's area director for Europe and the Middle East, urged American Baptist to pray for personnel, students and staff of the seminary as well as the people of Lebanon and Israel.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
The full statement is on the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America Web site.