World Vision has dramatically distanced itself from an article by its vice-president criticising Christian Zionism.
Steve Haas wrote All of Me: Engaging the World of Poverty and Injustice for the Lausanne Movement's website. The paper deals with Christian engagement in issues of poverty and injustice and uses examples from Rwanda, HIV/Aids and Palestine.
Haas said that many evangelicals for more than 60 years had "clung to a very narrow theological narrative that weds Christian theology with a political ideology known as Zionism". He added that "This theological position has backed the largest and longest occupation of another people group in modern history, an oppressive Israeli legal system which [Archbishop Desmond] Tutu and many other church leaders have called 'apartheid on steroids'."
The paper was savaged by pro-Israeli commentators including Robert Stearns, director of Eagles' Wings, who wrote for the Jerusalem Post that the article was an example of "the toxic mix of lies, ignorance, and half-truths that drive the global movement to delegitimise Israel. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre accused Haas of making comments that "that malign Israel and undermine her very right to exist".
Now World Vision has issued a statement saying that the paper "does not accurately reflect World Vision's position and views toward the State of Israel and the Palestinian people and was published without proper World Vision approvals". The organisation is "concerned about the conclusions drawn from the article by some readers", it said.
World Vision says that "broad statements such as those in the Lausanne piece oversimplify issues at hand, limit meaningful dialogue, and harden staunch perspectives toward the conflict". The comments about Christian Zionism in the article were "unhelpfully simplified and combative" and "limit meaningful dialogue between people who care about peace in the region".
It also indicates a withdrawal of its endorsement of the film "With God on Our Side", to which Haas does not refer. The film has been criticised for being anti-Israeli. World Vision's statement says: "While it does a good job of illustrating the plight of Palestinian children and families, the film should have done a better job in presenting the Israeli perspective. It is important that both sides of the conflict be understood and presented."
While the statement is critical of Haas' comments on Christian Zionism, it reiterates the core of his arguments in All of Me, saying: "We also believe that sustainable peace cannot be fully realised under the realities of military occupation, as it is a key contributor to poverty in the Palestinian territories and a source of fear and oppression for people there."
It says that "all Israeli and Palestinian children have the right to live in safety, free from violence, fear and want", and while it affirms the right of Israel to exist it says: "We also acknowledge the historic connection of Palestinians to the land and affirm a political solution that recognises the right of the Palestinian people to have a state of their own."
The announcement was described by the chief executive of UK-based charity Embrace the Middle East as "deeply puzzling". Jeremy Moodey told Christian Today: "In now adopting what it presents as a more even-handed and neutral approach, World Vision is effectively retreating from its long-standing position of bias towards supporting Palestinian demands for justice and an end to occupation.
"This position, which was endorsed by senior World Vision executives and not just Steve Haas, was reflected in several high profile advocacy campaigns which attracted significant criticism from Israel's supporters. These campaigns seemed to acknowledge the massive asymmetry of power in the Israel/Palestine dispute and challenged the constant abuses of that power by Israel, whether in Gaza or through the illegal military detention and mistreatment of Palestinian children from the West Bank.
"One can only speculate as to the cause of such a disappointing volte-face, but perhaps worries about losing support from American evangelical donors were a factor."
The controversy represents the second time World Vision has been forced to back down in the face of an adverse reaction from evangelicals. Last year it performed a U-turn after announcing that it would accept same-sex marriage among employees. A backlash from conservatives threatened to deprive it of much of its support base and of large amounts of revenue.