CHICAGO (Reuters) - A plan for the U.S. Presbyterian Church to divest its holdings in companies profiting from Middle East turmoil is up for review with critics demanding it be scrapped but church leaders backing a compromise to keep the threat alive for another two years.
Since 2004 when the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest body of that denomination in the country, adopted the action, none of its $8 billion portfolio has actually been divested over the issue.
But when church members gather in Birmingham, Alabama, in mid-June for the group's biennial General Assembly, they will be faced with about two dozen separate proposals demanding that the church reverse the decision.
The 2004 meeting endorsed a "phased, selective divestment" of holdings in companies whose products, activities or services underpinned the conflict in Israel and Palestine.
A committee pursuing divestment has singled out five companies -- Caterpillar Inc., Citigroup Inc., United Technologies Corp., Motorola Inc. and ITT Industries Inc. -- for "dialogue, shareholder resolutions and public pressure."
While other U.S. churches have explored similar divestments, none has taken it as far as the Presbyterians. How much the church has invested in those companies has not been disclosed.
The companies do business that either assists the Israeli military or supports the infrastructure of Israel's West Bank settlements. Caterpillar, for instance, sells heavy equipment used in the demolition of Palestinian homes. The company says it has no control over how its products are used.
"Our conviction is very strongly that divestment needs to be completely rescinded," said the Rev. William Harter, pastor of Falling Spring Church in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, a leading critic of the process.
To extend the current situation, he said, leaves the dice loaded against Israel to the detriment of finding a peaceful two-state settlement in the region.
But the General Assembly Council, which leads the church between the two-year meetings, has made a move well ahead of the meeting to calm divisiveness by endorsing a proposal calling for increased study while keeping the divestment threat in place for another two years.
The proposal acknowledges that many church members are "extremely concerned" about the action, "especially regarding the specific language of 'divestment' and its unintended meaning and consequence for our Jewish sisters and brothers."
It calls for the formation of a working group to closely monitor developments in the Middle East in consultation with Jews, Christians and Muslims, to find the best way the church can promote peace. It also promises that no divestment would take place until at least the next General Assembly meeting in the summer of 2008.
It was written chiefly by Rick Ufford-Chase, an Arizona-based lay leader who presided over the 2004 meeting which endorsed divestment.
The church's news service described his proposal as an effort to "defuse" what otherwise would be a volatile debate over the issue.
David Elcott, director of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said his preference would be to see the church repudiate the divestment approach but he expects instead to see the church "work to moderate its stance."
He said Ufford-Chase is a "remarkable" man with whom he has worked on other issues and because he wrote the compromise study proposal "I'm willing and I hope my colleagues would be willing to accept this decision."
Ethan Felsonof the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said the compromise proposal would put the situation "in a much better place now."
In the end, however, the meeting in June operates like a legislative assembly, with substitutes and amendments all up for vote by the 500 or so in attendance, and nothing is set in stone, according to Mindy Marchal of the church's Office of Communication.