By United Methodist News Service

After direct meetings with Caterpillar Inc., the United Methodist Church's social action agency withdrew a petition calling for divestment from the heavy equipment manufacturer.

The petition, originally sent to the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, charged that the company profits from illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and contributes to the occupation by supplying Israeli Defense Forces with heavy equipment.

Sending the petition to General Conference has achieved positive results, said Jim Winkler, top executive of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in Washington.

Since January, Caterpillar has opened discussions with the board, issued a statement denouncing "immoral use of its equipment," and agreed to continued dialogue.

The Caterpillar statement sent to Winkler said, "Caterpillar's products are designed to improve quality of life. ... We do not condone the illegal or immoral use of any Caterpillar equipment. ... We expect our customers to use our products in environmentally responsible ways and consistent with human rights and the requirements of international humanitarian law."

The statement affirmed the importance of continuing dialogue between Caterpillar and The United Methodist Church. "We are committed to further conversations and possible philanthropic activities in Palestinian areas."

About $5 million of the denomination's estimated $17 billion pension portfolio is invested in Caterpillar stock.

Winkler thanked the Rev. Tim Bias, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church of Peoria, Ill., where Caterpillar is based, for his role in opening the dialogue. "Tim is the pastor to important Caterpillar executives and graciously arranged meetings between us," Winkler said.

"I got involved because there had been no conversation between the General Board of Church and Society and Caterpillar prior to the filing of the divestment resolution," Bias said. "One of the values we hold as United Methodists is holy conferencing. If we are to bring transformation to the world, we will do it by building and gaining trust with persons of differing perspectives. We don't do it by going toe to toe; we do it hand in hand.

"When we sit down and find common ground, we begin a conversation," Bias continued. Through the conversations between the board and Caterpillar, "we have raised the consciousness of the issue of peace in the Middle East and we have found a way to address it together."

Recently, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Roman Catholic Dominican Sisters withdrew their shareholder resolution on human rights to be presented at Caterpillar's annual meeting. They withdrew the resolution in exchange for discussions on the use of the company's products, in light of Caterpillar's stated expectations that customers will use its products in an environmentally responsible manner and consistent with international humanitarian law and norms.

The 2004 General Conference passed a resolution opposing Israeli settlements in Palestinian land, and the agency has worked for the past three years to seek the implementation of General Conference Resolution 312, "Opposition to Israeli Settlements in Palestinian Land." The resolution was updated at the recent 2008 General Conference.

The United Methodist Church opposes continued military occupation, confiscation of Palestinian land, destruction of Palestinian homes and the continued building of illegal Jewish settlements.

Information for this report came from Wayne L. Rhodes, director of communications, United Methodist Board of Church and Society. Paul Black, The Illinois Great Rivers Conference, also contributed to this report.