Palestinian Christians to challenge Israel-centric evangelical beliefs in May conference

BETHLEHEM — If Jesus were to suddenly appear at one of the Israeli checkpoints that separates this Palestinian area from Israel, what would He think? That is a question that bedeviled the Reverend Munther Isaac, a Palestinian Christian who is the academic dean at Bethlehem Bible College.

“Would Christ discriminate between people based on their ethnicity?” Isaac asked. “Would Christ promote fear of the other?”

These questions were among those that inspired Isaac, 39, to set up a conference called Christ at the Checkpoint, an event hosted by Bethlehem Bible College and held every two years. The aim of the conference is to teach evangelicals from around the world about the lives of Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation. Hundreds have gathered at each of the four conferences that took place between 2010 and 2017. The fifth one is happening next month between May 28th and June 1st, and the organizers are expecting around 450 in attendance.

Isaac, who is the conference director, said that while Christ is the symbol of the Christian faith, the checkpoint is a symbol of the reality for Palestinians. Together, they form the conference title. Checkpoints are barriers set up in the West Bank by the Israeli Defense Forces to prevent terror attacks that harm civilians. But Palestinians who pass through checkpoints – which is often necessary for daily commute to work – must get their identities checked by Israeli authorities and are subject to lengthy questioning.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Jesus Christ at the Center.” The theme is a challenge to Christian theologies that place Israel at the center. “We believe as evangelical Christians in Palestine that Scripture points us to Christ, not to Israel,” Isaac explained.

Indeed, a big target group for Christ at the Checkpoint is evangelical Christians in the U.S. Sami Awad, a speaker at this year’s conference and the director of a Palestinian peacemaking nonprofit called Holy Land Trust, said that Christian Zionism – support for Jews to return to the Holy Land based on the promises made to Israel in the Bible – is a strong movement in the States. “Most evangelical and Pentecostal Christians have support for Israel no matter what happens,” said Awad, who travels to the U.S. four or five times a year to meet with churches. “They say if politicians don’t support Israel, the country will be cursed.”

In a 2016 study by Pew Research Center, 79 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they sympathize more with Israel than with Palestinians, while five percent said they sympathize more with Palestinians. The report says that opinion is less one-sided in other denominations. Nevertheless, in groups like mainline Protestants and white Catholics, only 14 percent said they side more with Palestinians. Overall, most Christians overwhelmingly favor Israel.

“Many evangelical Christians will come and say, God gave this land to the Jewish people and it’s theirs,” Isaac said. “And we say, what does that mean on the ground? Should we pack, should we accept to live as second-class citizens all under occupation just because of that promise? 

“It’s these kind of questions that we want to challenge evangelicals to consider,” he said.

Besides challenging the beliefs of evangelicals, the conference will highlight the Palestinian perspective – one that is often not heard in Christian circles.

“I once met a woman who for 50 years prayed for the peace of Jerusalem – every day, that’s what she told me. And she said she has never mentioned Palestinians. She didn’t know we exist,” Isaac described. “We’re living in an age when you would think, with social media, people would know. But still they don’t know.”

Within the Holy Land, Palestinians who are Christian are even more invisible. According to The World Factbook published by the Central Intelligence Agency, Christians make up between 1 to 2.5 percent of the population in the West Bank, and less than one percent of the population in Gaza. The Christian population in the two regions used to be 15 percent in 1950, and it continues to dwindle.

“Palestinian Christian voices get almost zero presence within mainstream media because they do not fit neatly into either a Conservative or a Liberal American political narrative,” said James-Michael Smith, the founder of a Christian nonprofit in Charlotte, North Carolina. Smith, 39, traveled to Bethlehem for Christ at the Checkpoint four years ago and will participate in this year’s conference.

David Azar, 29, is a Palestinian Christian who moved from Gaza to the West Bank. He studied theology at Bethlehem Bible College and went to the conference in 2012, 2014 and 2016. Azar told me about participants he met at past conferences. “Some people, they didn’t know that there are Christians in Palestine,” he said. “They were thinking that Palestine is an Islamic country. But through Christ at the Checkpoint and a conference like that, they will see the living stories of Palestinian Christians.”

Mariam Geraisy, a recent graduate of Bethlehem Bible College, has similar thoughts. “The world does not care about the feeling of Palestinian Christians,” said Geraisy, 23. “For me, this conference is a good way to make our voice as Christians for the whole world.”

She attended the conference in 2016 as a theology student. Geraisy grew up in Beit Sahour, a town east of Bethlehem, and said that living in the West Bank presented many challenges.

“This is represented by the political and religious situation in Palestine,” Geraisy explained. “Some examples of this are the wars between the two peoples, the existing violence, the physical humiliation and the psychological humiliation of anyone trying to visit the Holy Places in Jerusalem or any other area.”

A Palestinian Christian woman from Bethlehem, who asked to remain anonymous, shared about the difficulties of visiting Jerusalem – largely because she must first cross a checkpoint.

Palestinians who travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem have to apply for a permit. But the woman said the hardest part is the fear that hits her while she’s crossing the checkpoint. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” she explained. “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Having encounters with Israeli soldiers is one of the many realities of life in the West Bank.

For Christians who have seen glimpses of the reality and want to stand with Palestinians, there remains to be challenges.

“We’re living in a time when it’s still difficult and costly to many evangelical Christians to publicly support Palestinians or to publicly say something sympathetic to Palestinians,” Isaac explained. “It’s almost like a taboo to support Palestinians.”

Nevertheless, Isaac said he hopes that evangelicals from the West will attend the conference and hear from their Christian brothers and sisters in Bethlehem.

“We’ve met, sometimes, pastors who say they’ve come to the Holy Land many times with groups but never came to this side here,” Isaac said of Christians who make their first visit to the Palestinian territories for Christ at the Checkpoint.

“The biggest effect is, they leave saying, ‘We didn’t know.’”


The value of Shabbat, as illustrated by The Twilight Zone

In the minutes after the Shabbat evening service ended and before the rabbi started his teaching, the atmosphere at Congregation Shearith Israel shifted from solemn to relaxed. Congregants stood up from their seats and conversations broke out in the synagogue, located on the intersection between 70th Street and Central Park West in Manhattan. To listen to Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s message, men and women did not sit separately on the main floor and on the balcony but together on one side of the main floor. Soloveichik himself did not stand on the bimah — the elevated platform from which the cantor prayed — but behind a simple podium facing the believers.

He was ready to deliver his weekly 20-minute shiur, a lesson that teaches a passage from the Talmud. “We’re going to talk about time,” he began, but instead of drawing on Biblical or rabbinic sources, the rabbi proceeded to quote from the hit television series of the 1960s, “The Twilight Zone.”

Soloveichik read screenwriter Rod Serling’s opening narration from the eighth episode. The narration was the first passage printed on pale yellow pamphlets handed out to the congregants. “Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers,” the rabbi said, “A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock.”

Men and women chuckled in their seats as Soloveichik continued to tell the story of Henry Bemis, whose greatest desire is to have unlimited time to read without being interrupted by his boss and his wife. During his lunch break one day, Bemis goes into the bank’s vault in hopes of having undisturbed reading time. A sudden explosion happens outside the vault, and when Bemis exits, he discovers that a nuclear war has destroyed everything and that he was the only person left alive on Earth.

“He’ll have a world all to himself…without anyone,” Serling’s narration read. Soloveichik described Bemis’s despair. Although Bemis now had unlimited time, his loneliness drove him to prepare to commit suicide. At this point of the story, the rabbi delivered one of the lessons of his message. “Time becomes important when we use it at the service of someone else,” he said. In Bemis’s case, the bookish man had no one to spend his life with and serve. Soloveichik added, “It’s only when time is limited does it become valuable.”

His congregants, mostly married couples in their 50s and 60s, nodded in agreement to the rabbi’s words. Soloveichik proceeded to cite the Talmud, connecting the importance of limited time to the Sabbath day — the weekly day of rest when Jews do not work and usually spend time with loved ones. He referenced “Shabbat 33B” from the Talmud, which talks about a rabbi and his son seeing an elderly man holding two bundles of myrtle branches as the sun was setting on Shabbat eve.

Soloveichik read from the passage, “They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: 'Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: 'Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy' (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mizvot are to Israel.” The mitzvot referred to here are commandments in the Torah and the ones quoted in this passage are two of the sources of instruction for observing Shabbat.

The Sabbath day was made significant in chapter two of Genesis, when God finished creating the world on the seventh day. “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done,” Genesis reads. Believers at Congregation Shearith Israel observe the day vigilantly from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

Soloveichik tied the importance of Shabbat to his earlier points. The fact that Shabbat is framed by a limited time, spent not alone but rather in community, makes it more special. “Shabbat time, we bless it and we sanctify it,” he said as he closed the shiur.

Zachary Edinger, the sexton of the synagogue, said that these 20-minute messages originally began in hopes of increasing the participation at Friday’s Shabbat services. “Our Friday night services used to be very sparsely attended, with 25 to 50 people,” Edinger, 40, said. “When the rabbi started a few years ago, he made it a priority to speak on Friday night, something we had not done before. This attracted a good crowd and we now regularly get between 70 to 90 people on Friday nights,” he explained.

Edinger said that thus far, the talks have not had a set curriculum. “Rather we hope people will be inspired and entertained enough to want to keep coming to our services,” he said.

At the message’s closing, men and women stood up from their seats and said “Shabbat Shalom” to one another. They exited the synagogue to return home and observe the blessed and sanctified day of rest, perhaps now with a new understanding that it is especially precious because it is not endless, but limited.


Faith, food and checkpoints

BETHLEHEM — The dining table featured a display of golden-spiced rice with toasted almonds, tomatoes and cucumbers marinated in vinegar, fresh olives grown by our host Nataly, and glasses of freshly-squeezed lemonade – from her home-grown lemons. On this evening, Nataly and her husband, George, welcomed Vildana, Galie and me into their home in Bethlehem. The walls of the apartment were adorned with framed Catholic paintings and family portraits with the couple and their two sons, Muha and Maher, and two daughters, Michline and Majd.

The evening, arranged by Holy Land Trust, was a chance to spend a night with a Palestinian family living under Israeli occupation. There was delicious food, comfortable beds and much conversation on everything from faith and school to the hardships of checkpoints and travel permits.

Majd, the youngest of the children, greeted us enthusiastically in the living room. She is a senior in high school and had just finished a chemistry exam that day. Majd told us that her sister Michline is busy studying for a test; Michline is in her first year at dentistry school. Her work done for the day, Majd shared her love for Turkish and Brazilian TV series.

Nataly politely waved us into the dining room when the food was prepared, and she and George joined the table. A few bites into the meal, Nataly started to share her perspective on life in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a city located in the West Bank, a territory for the most part either under Israeli control or joint Israeli-Palestinian Authority control. “The situation is not what we want,” Nataly said. “Here, it’s a beautiful place, but the fauda is the problem.” We learned that “fauda” is the word for “chaos” in Arabic.

She explained the difficulty of moving within the West Bank for Palestinians. “We want to go to Ramallah, it’s near,” Nataly said of the city in central West Bank. “But sometimes they put a checkpoint and say, ‘Give me identity.’ Especially for young boys.”

The checkpoints Nataly speaks of are barriers set up by the Israeli Defense Forces throughout the West Bank. Palestinians crossing the checkpoints regularly have their identity cards inspected by Israeli soldiers. “If I’m in the line, if I see a soldier, I’m scared and I walk like a robot, not like a normal person,” Nataly said. “You can’t put your hands in pockets.”

Nataly added that visiting Jerusalem, located around six miles north of Bethlehem, is difficult because a permit is required.

She said that some of her family members have left the country. A few of her siblings, for instance, moved to El Salvador and Honduras. Nataly also has a brother who now lives in Spain. “He went to study there, he liked it and stayed,” she explained.

Nataly shared that for the most part, people who have money are no longer in Bethlehem. “If they’re normal people, they can’t leave,” she said of families with average income.

Our conversation turned to Catholic life in Bethlehem. Nataly, George and their family attend weekly services at the Church of the Nativity, the basilica that is built on what is considered to be the birthplace of Jesus. Nataly had recently returned from a trip to the desert around Jericho.

“It’s our fasting period, so people go,” Nataly explained. The desert around Jericho is significant to Christian tradition because it’s believed to be where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by the Devil. Nataly proudly showed us photos of her recent trip. She and her sister-in-law smiled up at us from her phone screen.

The evening ended with us swiping through the photos and enjoying warm cups of chamomile tea and slices of homemade chocolate cake. We were met with the same hospitality the next morning – with a table full of breakfast foods – before leaving the home.