By Eric M. Johnson
(Reuters) - A deeply-divided gathering of U.S. Presbyterian Church elders and ministers narrowly voted on Friday to divest the religious group's holdings in three American companies it says have ties to Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian Territories.
As a result of the vote the church will divest holdings worth roughly $21 million in Caterpillar Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions.
"We as a church cannot profit from the destruction of homes and lives," said Reverend Gradye Parsons in a statement about the decision at its meeting in Detroit. "We continue to invest in many businesses involved in peaceful pursuits in Israel."
Members of one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations had voiced concerns for years over the prospect of companies profiting from "non-peaceful pursuits", and the decision came amid an international movement pushing a boycott of Israeli goods.
Friday's vote - 310 in favor, 303 against - came after about a decade of debate and the rejection by two votes in 2012 of a similar measure. It was almost certainly the largest such commitment among U.S. church-group conventions.
Caterpillar, which could not immediately be reached for comment, has said it cannot control how its equipment is used.
Hewlett Packard did not immediately respond to requests for comment but has said it has a strong human rights policy and complies with the highest standards in every market in which they operate.
Kurt Ebenhoch, a spokesman for Motorola Solutions, said: "Motorola Solutions has a comprehensive set of policies and procedures that addresses human rights, which is designed to ensure that our operations worldwide are conducted using the highest standards of integrity and ethical business conduct applied uniformly and consistently."
The church, which has included in its ranks many U.S. Presidents, said the companies supply equipment and materials used to destroy homes and construct and monitor Israeli checkpoints and settlements, which most countries view as illegal and an obstacle to peacemaking.
The motion carried in the vote also expressed support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and affirms Israel's legitimacy as a state, among other commitments.
Church officials were careful to say they are not fully aligning themselves with the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which campaigns for a blanket boycott of all Israeli goods and questions Israel's legitimacy.
"We are already losing control of our message. Divestment will not end the conflict and bring peace. Divestment will bring dissension," said Frank Allen, of the Presbytery of Central Florida, in a statement about the meeting.
It was unclear exactly what investments the church sought to shed and when such trades would happen, though church agencies meeting in the fall would hear the new policy and instruct investment advisors, church officials said.
The decision comes a day after the gathering voted to allow their clergy to perform same-sex weddings, in a major reversal.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)