By Marianne Ejdersten*
Manuel Quintero is retiring after eight years of service as the international programme coordinator for the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).
He took time to reflect on the mission of EAPPI, particularly within its current context, as well as aspects of the programme that have been dear to his heart.
You are leaving after eight years as the International Coordinator for the EAPPI programme. What is the main mission for EAPPI?
Quintero: I came to this program after a long career in the ecumenical movement, both world-wide —as general secretary of the World Student Christian Federation— and in my own region, where I worked as director of communication for the Latin American Council of Churches for 11 years. I joined EAPPI as international coordinator just after I ended my work as director of Frontier Internship in Mission (FIM), an experimental mission program that provided opportunities for individuals to become bridges across cultural, political and religious frontiers. In FIM, we sent people for a 2-year internship in another country, followed by a one-year re-entry project in their country of origin. In FIM, we understood mission as a two-way endeavour to bear witness in word and deed of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and affirmed that social justice is central within the conception of God’s mission.
I found that EAPPI provides an opportunity to undertake God’s mission in a rather complex context, that of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The mission of EAPPI is defined as witnessing life and bringing hope in a hopeless situation and engaging with local Palestinians and Israelis who are struggling for ending the occupation, and pursuing a just peace, in order to change the international community’s involvement in the conflict, urging them to act against injustice in the region.
At the core of EAPPI’s mission, there is a strong, resolute peace-making vocation through accompaniment, seeking to learn resilience from people under exceptional situations of oppression and how they are able to counter and transform attitudes that encourage violence. This vocation is particularly important in a context marked by a conflict that began in the mid-20th century and has claimed the lives of thousands of victims and caused so much suffering for both Israelis and Palestinians.
What’s the role of the EAPPI programme in the current situation in Israel and Palestine?
Quintero: In the current context, EAPPI is constantly called to ”come and see” — words repeated several times in the gospel of John — and accompany our member churches in the Holy Land and the wider Christian family of churches and experience life under occupation together with both Palestinian and Israeli communities and groups committed to justice, peace, and respect for human rights. I think EAPPI’s presence with both communities incarnates the vision of the heads of churches in Jerusalem for a just peace and reconciliation.
Another EAPPI role is that of raising awareness of the churches through the work of the ecumenical accompaniers, communications and advocacy, helping churches and the ecumenical movement to gain a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, enabling them to engage in concrete actions of solidarity based on pertinent WCC resolutions and calling them to speak out with a common voice.
I remember Bishop Munib Younan’s speech during the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of EAPPI when he emphasised the need to address the “fears and insecurity of the Israelis and the need for justice and liberation for Palestinians.” If EAPPI can modestly contribute to this, one day we will have the right to rejoice with those who contributed to forge a lasting peace in the Holy Land, based on justice, forgiveness and reconciliation.
How does the EAPPI programme relate to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement?
Quintero: It is interesting that some individuals and organizations accuse EAPPI of being part of the BDS movement. Either they do not know the World Council of Churches or EAPPI well, or these accusations are motivated by vested political interests. They are usually levelled by extreme right wing and/or anti-ecumenical organisations.
EAPPI is a program of the WCC and therefore is bound to follow strictly the WCC official policy and positions. The WCC encourages member churches to withdraw investments from companies benefiting from the illegal activities on occupied territories or take any other economic measure that are equitable, transparent and non-violent including boycotting settlement products. This is very much in line with the United Nations Security Council resolution 446, adopted on 22 March 1979, according to which “the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” That resolution was adopted by 12 votes to none, with three abstentions from Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
What are you most proud of from your time with the programme?
Quintero: It is very difficult to summarize, but I’ll try to share some highlights. During my time the programme expanded beyond its historical geographical boundaries and churches from countries in Asia and Latin America joined EAPPI. My own personal background and ecumenical experience showed me the meaning of involving churches from all over the world in truly ecumenical endeavours. I found that some southern ecumenical accompaniers have a special way of fine-tuning themselves with the Palestine-Israel conflict, just because they come from countries where civil war or other conflicts are a close reality.
Recognition is another reason to be proud of. Wherever I travel in the West Bank, I meet Palestinians who are extremely grateful for EAPPI’s presence. They feel more secure when ecumenical accompaniers are around as deterrents against harassment and violence.
The occupation has terrible negative impacts, mostly for Palestinians but for Israelis too. An Israeli woman who was part of our local reference group, used to say that the occupation is eroding the soul of the Israeli people. Otherwise, how can you explain that some soldiers could confiscate the bicycle of an 8-year-old Palestinian girl to break it and throw it in the bushes?
In this regard, one project that started in 2013 in cooperation with UNICEF has been very close to my heart: it is providing safer access to education to more than 3,000 Palestinian children who must pass through military checkpoints or face the risk of harassment and violence from Israeli settlers and soldiers. EAPPI has helped these children to grapple with this situation and conquer fear, a fear that would have prevented them from enjoying the fundamental right to education.
Israeli solidarity is also something I am very proud of. In our program and elsewhere I met Israelis who are deeply committed to a just peace in the Holy Land, people who pay a heavy price for their attitude. I believe they are made of the same substance of the Old Testament prophets who called the people of Israel to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God, as we read in the beautiful text of Micah 6:8.
*By Marianne Ejdersten, director of communication at the World Council of Churches since 2015.