The fallout from Presbyterian actions involving the Middle East continues to rain down.
On Nov. 11, the denomination announced that it no longer employs two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national staff members who traveled to the Middle East last month and were involved in a controversial meeting with Hezbollah, a group that the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization.
Gone are Kathy Lueckert, who as deputy director of the General Assembly Council was considered part of the top level of the denomination’s leadership, and Peter Sulyok, coordinator for the past dozen years of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.
In announcing the departures, John Detterick, executive director of the General Assembly Council, did not make it clear if Lueckert and Sulyok resigned or were fired — or say precisely why they no longer are PC(USA) employees, citing in a written statement their right to confidentiality.
But the Hezbollah visit, made during a two-week fact-finding tour by the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy — a visit that also included high-level meetings with political, human rights and religious leaders around the Middle East — had provoked strong and immediate criticism both from Jewish leaders already angry with the PC(USA), and by some from within the Presbyterian church.
Presbyterian-Jewish relations have been tense since the General Assembly’s decision, last summer, to begin a process of phased, selective divestment in some companies doing business in Israel, in protest over Israel’s treatment of the
Lueckert — the senior staff member on the Middle East trip — was one of Detterick’s closest aides, playing an important decision-making role in budget and management decisions. Reached by telephone, Lueckert, whose family includes generations of Presbyterian ministers, declined to comment, as did Sulyok, who is himself an ordained minister. A call to Detterick’s office seeking comment was not immediately returned.
After the Hezbollah visit, Dettrick and two other top denominational leaders — Clifton Kirkpatrick, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, and Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly — jointly sent an open letter calling the meeting “misguided, at best” and describing as “reprehensible” some of the comments attributed to members of the Presbyterian delegation.
That letter also said that when the three learned of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy’s plans to meet with Hezbollah, “we asked the group to drop this visit from their plans.”
But exactly what kind of conversations took place with PC(USA) officials before the Hezbollah meeting — in other words, who knew what when, and what those denominational leaders said or did regarding the proposed meeting — has not been made clear, nor has it been revealed what role Lueckert and Sulyok played in those discussions.
It’s also not known whether there might have been other tensions in Detterick’s management team, unrelated to the Hezbollah visit that might have played a part in what happened. Lueckert, for example, has generally been well respected and has a reputation for being straight- shooting and not afraid to speak her mind.
But both are gone now — Lueckert after working for the PC(USA) for five years and Sulyok after 12 years on the national staff and roughly the same time working as a pastor before that. Detterick, in a written statement to the PC(USA) staff, announced the departures “with sadness” and wrote: “I know these decisions raise many questions for staff, but please realize that all staff have a right to confidentiality regarding their employment. Therefore, this is all I can say. I am keeping Kathy and Peter in my prayers and hope you will also.”
The PC(USA)’s Mission Responsibility Through Investment Committee, meeting in New York in early November, recently developed criteria for determining which companies might be considered for possible divestment. More on this story
Throughout the fall, the denomination’s plans for considering divestiture — sometimes misrepresented as an immediate, across-the-board divestment — had angered Jewish leaders across the country and in Israel, in part because some feared that other Christian denominations might follow suit.
So when news broke of the visit with Hezbollah — a Shiite-Islamic group that has been linked to the 1983 truck bombing in Beirut that killed 241 U.S. Marines — the anger flared right back up.
Especially upsetting to some were comments attributed by Arab television to Ronald Stone, an advisory committee member and recently-retired professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who was quoted in part as saying to Hezbollah leaders: “As an elder of our church, I’d like to say that according to my recent experience, relations and conversations with Islamic leaders are a lot easier than dealings and dialogue with Jewish leaders.” Stone has since said that the clip of his comments shown on television was just one part of a longer conversation, although he acknowledges he made the comments.
Detterick, who is in his final term as executive director of the General Assembly Council, has said he will begin searching for Lueckert’s replacement.