August 4, 2006
Ben Weir: Middle East peace failure spawned Lebanon violence
U.S. has lost credibility, former hostage and GA moderator says
by Jerry L. Van Marter
Photo of Ben Weir
LOUISVILLE – The failure of Israel, the Arab states and the international community to reach a comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East is at the root of the violence that is tearing Lebanon apart, says former Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) missionary and hostage there Benjamin Weir.
“Hopes for peace are not on the horizon,” Weir told the Presbyterian News Service in an exclusive Aug. 1 interview, “because the Arab-Israeli issue has not been addressed forthrightly.”
Weir, who with his wife Carol served as PC(USA) missionaries in Lebanon for nearly 30 years, was kidnapped off the streets of Beirut on May 8, 1984, by an Islamic fundamentalist group, Islamic Jihad, that later morphed into Hezbollah. He was released 16 months later. Shortly thereafter he was elected moderator of the 1986 General Assembly and has been one of the most world’s most respected voices for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East for the past 20 years.
“This tragic situation today brings back bitter memories of previous invasions of Lebanon,” Weir said. “These two antagonists, Israel and Hezbollah, have brought deep wounds on themselves.”
Weir said Hezbollah was “very unwise” to precipitate the current round of warfare by snatching two Israeli soldiers in a border incursion earlier in July. “Hezbollah has brought down the Lebanese house around itself and when the dust settles I expect there to be a strong reaction by the Lebanese public.”
But to lay the blame solely on Hezbollah is to see the situation in the region too simplistically, Weir insisted. “It’s not just Hezbollah, but anger generated throughout the Middle East about the whole Palestinian issue,” he said. “The anger is coming from Arab people generally, not just Hezbollah, about the inability of both Israel and the Palestinians to reach a [peace] agreement.”
And by its one-sided, unwavering support of Israel — together with its ill-advised war against Iraq — the United States “has lost much of its credibility in the Middle East,” Weir lamented, calling it a “great tragedy.” The U.S., he added, “has not played an honest broker role and so the baton has been passed to the European community and the United Nations.”
Weir said he’s “thankful that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the ecumenical community have appealed to the U.S. government for justice and fairness — there is a desperate need to reorient ourselves to a more equal understanding of the whole situation.”
Weir said there’s “no doubt” that Hezbollah has “received tremendous support from Iran,” but that support, too, needs to be placed in historical context. “The Shiites in Lebanon and Iran have family ties that go back generations,” Weir noted, recalling meeting a Lebanese family in Tehran 40 years ago who were there visiting relatives.
“Back in the early 1970s, when Carol and I were living in south Lebanon, there were Lebanese leaders speaking out against the plight of the people there and about the only support they got was from fellow Shiites in Iran — that was more than 30 years ago!
“Generations of Shia living under oppression in south Lebanon and other places have looked to Iran as a model for overcoming their oppression,” Weir said, “though very few support that particular political model.”
And because the Lebanese government is very weak — and weaker still because of the current war — “ the Lebanese will not be free from influence from many directions for the foreseeable future.”
Lebanon’s future, Weir continued, depends on the international community. “The plight of one million displaced Lebanese, and the deep loss and sorrow caused by such extensive destruction calls for both massive emergency aid as well as negotiations to create a meaningful ceasefire,” he said. “Early this year there were rising hopes that Lebanon would once again begin to see prosperity and stability. Now there has been a great letdown leading to hopelessness.”
Weir, who has been on the phone and email continuously since the violence began, said none of his closest colleagues in Lebanon have been killed or injured. The Near East School of Theology, where he taught while serving as a missionary and for which he and Carol tirelessly work to raise financial and other support, has become a refugee shelter, as have other Christian schools and institutions in the country.
“There’s lots of good will — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is working with the Middle East Council of Churches and Action by Churches Together (a Geneva-based relief agency of which the PCUSA is a part),” Weir said, “but in the total picture its only a drop in the bucket.”
Weir also praised General Assembly Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick, who he said “sent a very helpful letter to our partner churches in the region. In such circumstances it’s so easy to feel isolated.”
And though he realizes passions run deep “with fear and distrust of Israel’s military establishment a reality,” Weir said, “I hope that Lebanese can become aware that Israeli civilians have suffered, too.”
Weir said he has been deeply touched, as he talks with Presbyterians around the country, “by the many expressions of horror and empathy for the plight of Lebanese seen nightly on TV in the midst of such suffering and devastation.” Many, he said, ask what they can do?
“Pray fervently,” he tells them.
“But beyond that is the larger issue: How can we address internationally at early stages situations of friction and injustice before they erupt in armed confrontation?” he said.
“There are no easy answers,” Weir said. “But I am glad to be part of a Presbyterian Church that takes peacemaking seriously, and close to Middle East Christians who know that is their calling, too.”