Britain should apologize for Balfour Declaration, says Christian group

2 February 2017

The Iona Community, a Christian organization in Scotland, has declared its full support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

“BDS is an act of nonviolent solidarity, pursuing equality, freedom and justice,” reads a new Iona Community statement.

The statement endorses the BDS movement’s three demands by arguing for an end to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza, equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The statement also condemns Christian Zionism “as a distortion of the Christian faith in its abuse of scripture to oppress Palestinian people.”

“Listen to oppressed”

“The Iona Community has long sought, in all kinds of global and local contexts, to listen to the voices of those who are oppressed, and to take those voices seriously,” said Michael Marten, a member of the Iona Community’s council, its highest decision-making body.

“Through our members’ involvement in situations around the world over many decades, including in Africa, Asia, Latin America, as well as the Middle East, we have sought to try and understand the situations of others and offer solidarity and engagement.”

The community’s willingness to endorse full BDS and the right of return – steps that many other Christian bodies have not been ready to take – results from its relationship with Kairos Palestine, a coalition of Palestinian Christians that has endorsed the BDS call.

The statement was approved by the community’s council after a process that began with a working group formed in 2015.

“In engaging with the call from Kairos Palestine,” said Marten, “we took seriously the call for full BDS and in our discernment process felt that this was the only way we could respond. It seemed obvious to us that we should listen to what Palestinian Christians were saying and take that seriously.”

That same approach led to inclusion of the right of return.

“This is not a simplistic position,” said Marten, also an academic on political and religious history. “We recognize that the practical implementation of such a move is tremendously complex but that does not negate the fact that this [the expulsion of Palestinians by Zionist forces] is a fundamental injustice.”

He described the right of return as “central to a just transformation of the current conflict.”

Apology for Balfour

The Iona Community’s statement also refers to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Signed by Arthur James Balfour, then British foreign secretary, that 1917 letter pledged to support the Zionist movement’s objective of colonizing Palestine.

The Iona Community has urged that Britain apologize “for its part in the dispossession of Palestinian land and the wider Middle East conflict.”

Marten noted that Balfour came from a Scottish Presbyterian background, the same denomination as the founder of the Iona Community, George MacLeod.

Marten has been traveling to Palestine since 1991.

“[Since] that time, I can see a remarkable change in the situation,” said Marten. “From being a marginal position, a pro-justice position has become a mainstream one, including in the churches, even if the political contexts don’t reflect that.”

The Iona Community is small – with around 280 full members, and several thousand associate members and friends, according to its website. Yet it has long had an influence through the distribution of worship music and other liturgical resources used by many other churches worldwide.

For example, it has previously distributed music celebrating the South African anti-apartheid movement. The community’s statement notes that BDS tactics played a role “in ending South African apartheid,” adding, “we seek to learn from that.”

By taking this stance, the Iona Community should provide some inspiration to those churches and religious organizations, which have yet to come out publicly in defense of Palestinian rights.