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Session with terrorist stirs outrage
By Tad Whitaker, IJ reporter

[This article could be viewed originally at the following link.]

Local religious leaders are expressing outrage over a meeting that occurred last summer between members of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo and a commander of the terrorist organization Hezbollah.

The meeting occurred June 1, when the seminary group was touring the Middle East as part of a course, "Christianity in Context: Palestine/Israel," which focused on the Middle East, its cultures, issues, people and religions.

Seminary officials say the meeting was inadvertent.

"It could well be an accident, but I find it hard to believe," said the Rev. Doug Huneke of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon.

Huneke, along with Yitzhak Santis, director of Middle East affairs for the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco, yesterday condemned the visit, which Huneke said came to light recently via word of mouth among religious organizations.

Ann Murphy, director of communications for the seminary, confirmed that 11 students, two of their spouses and a faculty member were in the audience when Hezbollah commander Sheikh Nabil Qaoukat made remarks at a former Israeli detention center in Khiam, in southern Lebanon.

But, she added, the meeting was not planned in advance and seminary members stayed only because they felt threatened.

"They were as gracious as they could be under the circumstances and made the first move to get out as soon as it was safe," Murphy said.

She said the seminary group stopped at the detention center on a bus ride organized by the Middle East Council of Churches.

She said the group and other unrelated people on the bus stopped at the center for lunch only to realize that Qaoukat was there as well. She said Qaoukat discussed the history of the center and followed that with remarks about his political beliefs.

"That's when they realized they were in the presence of someone from Hezbollah," she said.

Murphy said one student described the situation by saying Qaoukat's bodyguards forced them to sit down during lunch and that, because of the detention center's remote location, there was no option other than to do so.

"We didn't plan to meet with anyone who is deemed a member of a terrorist organization," she said.

Santis said he is troubled by the seminary's visit because it was the first of three questionable events in 2004 that involved the Presbyterian Church.

After the seminary incident, the Presbyterian Church made a call for the selective divestment of stock held in companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, he said.

The most recent incident was an October meeting in which members of Presbyterian Church USA, the church's national organization based in Louisville, Ky., met with Qaoukat and made positive statements about Hezbollah on television.

"The coincidences are just too close for me to accept it's accidental," Santis said.

Santis said seminary officials failed to condemn Hezbollah in a statement released about the incident, and all comments have come from the communications department, not the seminary president.

"They're not dealing with this in a serious manner," he said.

Church officials rejected Santis' claims.

Barry Creech, coordinator for information and planning with Presbyterian USA, said two people who were part of the October meeting were fired, and the church condemned their remarks. The church does not support Hezbollah, he added.

"It's not part of our strategy," he said.

Murphy said the seminary group's meeting was an isolated incident and not related to the divestment call or the October meeting. She said the church's statement explaining the events was written with input from the seminary president and explicitly states the seminary is against all terrorist organizations.

"We repudiate all use of terrorism," she said.

Huneke said the seminary needs to cut ties with the organization that led the trip and must establish rules for Middle East trips to prevent any such incident from occurring again. He said that even if the seminary's meeting was accidental, the cumulative effect makes it difficult for him to meet with Jewish leaders.

"They must never allow ignorance or innocence to be an excuse," he said. "We ought to do things that bring about peace."

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