Palestinian Christians to Challenge Israel-centric Beliefs Among U.S. Evangelicals in Upcoming 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 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 since 2010. The fifth one is happening this month between May 28th and June 1st, with an expected attendance of 450.
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 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, 47, 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 5 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—a perspective 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 heard 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.”
Palestinians who travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem have to apply for a permit. A Palestinian Christian woman, who asked to be anonymous, 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. Isaac, who is also the pastor of a Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, said that after learning about these realities, evangelical Christians still often do not give their support.
“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.’"