BETHLEHEM, Palestine – Six years ago, Bethlehem Bible College organized the first Christ at the Checkpoint conference to ask: what would Jesus do in the face of an Israeli checkpoint? How does Christ’s Gospel respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today? Three international conferences later, we ask the same question within an intensified context of violence and suffering: how does the Gospel respond in the face of religious extremism? As the global church, and especially as Palestinian Christians, how are we to understand and follow Christ’s example in response to the ideological, political and spiritual conflicts gripping our region and world?
Yesterday night, several hundred delegates from twenty-three nationalities, Israel included, gathered in the Orient Palace Hotel for the opening ceremony of Christ at the Checkpoint 2016. Their aim, and that of this entire conference, is to understand the dangers of religious extremism, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other, and to formulate a Christ-like response. The opening session included welcome addresses from the mayor of Beit Jala, Nicola Khamis, the president of Bethlehem Bible College Rev. Dr. Jack Sara, and the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance Bishop Efraim Tendero, among others. Worship, musical performance and a poetry reading and reflection were also provided by the Bethlehem Bible College choir, Tamer Sahoury and Albert Bassil and poet Lucy Berry.
“What now?” That question was on the mind of many delegates as they entered the closing session of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference on Thursday evening, March 10. The last four days had been full of challenging and perplexing presentations on religious extremism, especially as it related to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The evening was designed for inner reflection and calls to action. Following a time of worship led by musicians from Bethlehem Bible College, the conference’s resident poet Lucy Berry offered a set of poems, some inspired by the sessions of the previous days. Her final poem, “The Lion Lay Down with the Lamb,” imagined a day when individuals and nations actually owned up to the violence and injustice they had inflicted on others:
The Arabs and the Jews said:
The Christians and the Muslims said:
The black people and the white people said:
“That is enough now. I want to find out who you are.”
As an Arab citizen of Israel, Yohanna Katanacho knows a bit about loving his Jewish neighbor. He has shared his personal testimony more than once on this subject: http://www.evangelicalsforsocialaction.org/faith-and-public-life/muscular-love-yohanna-katanacho/
For his message at CATC this year, Dr. Katanacho opened with a familiar theme. We are to seek justice with the logic of love: “Hatred cannot be cured with hatred, but with love. We re-humanize people with love.” Then he went on to describe what the logic of love expressed in justice and righteousness in the Holy Land might look like.
WEA Secretary General Speaks on Gospel and Religious Extremism at Conference in Bethlehem, Calls for Recognition of Evangelicals in the Holy Land
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Secretary General Bishop Efraim Tendero spoke on ‘the Gospel and Religious Extremism’ at the fourth Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem, calling for religious and political leaders to move away from exclusive territorial claims and instead commit to dialogue on common issues. He also met with government representatives and renewed WEA’s call for official recognition of evangelical churches by the state of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Delivering the key note address at the opening of the conference, Bishop Tendero spoke about common misconceptions about religious extremism, Biblical perspectives that counter religious extremism and religious nationalism, and WEA’s continued efforts for peace and reconciliation among people of different faith traditions.
If you ask me about one thing that I have done in my life that I am most proud of, I would say—that day! The day I stood on the Christ at the Checkpoint stage with three inspiring friends, in front of hundreds of people, and telling them how this conference had changed my life, while also encouraging the upcoming generation to do something for their homeland. At that moment, as I spoke for my people, I realized that this country of conflicts and war has become my favorite place on earth! It is my honor to defend a nation that everybody else is abandoning.
The love of my homeland was rooted in my heart since I was a little girl. Becoming a believer in Jesus Christ was the hardest part of my Palestinian identity. As I understood it, being a Christian meant not talking about any kind of politics. Furthermore, as I read the Old Testament, it made me want to refuse God and my Christian faith. If God wanted the Jews to have the land (the land that belongs to my family) over my people’s dead bodies, destroyed homes and uprooted olive trees, I didn’t want that God anymore! I was confused between my Christianity and my feelings of patriotism--until Christ at the Checkpoint conference came to life.
The first requirement in a Christian response to extremism, said David Neuhaus SJ, at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, is humility. “We cannot gaze down from a moral high ground,” said Neuhaus, Latin Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew Speaking Catholics in Israel and Coordinator of the Pastoral among Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Israel. “The fact that we are a small and powerless number in the Holy Land does not mean we have cleared our hearts and tongues from hubris and self-superiority.”
Christians have ourselves generated extremist ideologies from the crusader and inquisition mentalities of medieval times to military colonialism in the “new world,” Neuhaus added. Thus we must be self-critical first, and then speak prophetically of good news in which Christ breaks the dividing walls of hostility and extremism.
Jewish extremism is alive and well in two ways, Neuhaus said: through Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism. First, Judaism is not unique in the idea that “God is on my side,” Neuhaus said. Islam, Judaism and Christianity are all religions that “are not democratic, egalitarian and dialogic in nature, but convinced of possessing universal truth,” which makes them susceptible to the evil of extremism. The idea of being “chosen and better,” part of a superior community that the rest of the world would be better off joining, is one that lends itself to extremism. In the context of Israel, Neuhaus said, it has been dangerously combined with exclusive forms of Zionist nationalism.
“Zionism must create a domain in which Jews dominate and define their interests and values, often to the exclusion of those defined as non-Jews,” Neuhaus said. “This form of extremism is well known in the development of modern nationalist ideology: ethnocentric and exclusive, incompatible with democracy and equality.” Nationalist ideology is problematic in general with regard to equality and freedom, Neuhaus added, especially in multiethnic, religiously diverse societies. Nationalism combined with religion is poisonous.
“We are not dealing with a uniquely Jewish phenomenon,” Neuhaus said. But Israeli Zionism is an iteration of extremist ideology that blends human exclusivism with divine approval. “Nationalism is all the more toxic when it speaks a language that has mobilized God.”
The Christian response to such extremism must be active and prophetic, Neuhaus said. “Christians must proclaim good news as a conscious alternative to extremism, to consciously enunciate a Christian alternative,” Neuhaus said. “Christians, in facing extremism, must emerge from paralyzing fear to activist faith.”
“Activist faith” takes two practical forms, Neuhaus explained: formulating Gospel discourse and building institutions that witness to the gospel. The first means rejecting self-ghettoization, choosing instead to fearlessly speak for justice, peace, pardon, reconciliation, and selfless love. “Christians must go out in order to find all those who are similarly menaced by extremism and who share a vision of a society that is free and open,” Neuhaus said. “Instead of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ Gospel language works on making the ‘I’ and ‘you’ a transfigured ‘we,’ building a community in which walls are progressively eliminated.”
However entrenched the walls, divisions and fear may be within society, Neuahus said, Gospel discourse is victorious and hopeful in the cross. Neuhaus said. “Gospel discourse points to a kingdom that Christians believe is already here, even if it is not yet manifest,” Neuhaus said. “The forces of death have been overcome in Christ’s cross. Life reigns supreme.”
The second response is to build Gospel institutions that provide stark contrast to ethnocentrism and religious fanaticism. That is, Christians must seek to serve and love without exclusion, even of those different from or actively against them. “Christians cannot retreat into a ghetto comfort zone, but are called to engage all those who are working for an open society,” Neuhaus said. “When one builds the kingdom of God, one pulls down the walls to make sure that no one is left outside. Our institutions must be good news in their openness to all.”
Palestinian Christians face two fronts of extremism, said Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, in an interview at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference: Israeli occupation fueled by religious nationalism on one side and rising Islamism on the other. Christians must recognize and resist the injustice of both ideologies while taking practical steps to protect minorities, he said: amplifying moderate voices, calling for a bill of rights, implementing systems of monitoring and accountability, and in some cases, using international force to defend the weak.
Extremism has many causes, Nazir-Ali said in a public session on the second day of Christ at the Checkpoint. They include personal tyranny, like the dictatorship in Eritrea, intolerant ideology, like Marxist Communism in China, and religious nationalism that dictates a certain faith for citizens and discriminates against those outside it. Zionist imperialist ideology is one such example, Nazir-Ali said. “For historical, cultural and religious reasons, Jewish people should be able to access and live in this land,” he said, “But this cannot be at the expense of justice for the other people here.”
The idea that the Holy Land can only be for Jews has never been historically true, Nazir-Ali added. “Even in the books of Joshua and Judges, you find Israel making arrangements with other people to live in the land together. It is never, never on their own.”
At the same time, Israeli oppression of Palestinians and non-Jews should not be exchanged for Islamist oppression of Christians, Jews and moderate Muslims, Nazir-Ali said. Christians must stand against Israeli injustice toward Palestinians, Nazir-Ali affirmed, but also beware of Islamist movements that demand a caliphate, sharia law and dhimmi status for Jews and Christians.
The pendulum between liberal Islam and fundamentalist Islamism is one that has swung back and forth through the centuries, Nazir-Ali said, citing Islamic reformist movements in the 19th century versus current realities in Iran, Pakistan and Nigeria. “There is a clear element of Islamism now in Palestine, which wasn’t here when I first came in 1989,” Nazir-Ali said. Removal of Israeli occupation does not mean an Islamist Palestinian state – “That is a false dichotomy,” Nazir-Ali stated – but the threat thereof must be recognized.
“You can’t jump from the frying pan into the fire,” Nazir-Ali said. “The frying pan is what’s happening now in Hebron. It’s burning. People are cooking. But the fire is also found in radical Islam and Wahhabi Salafism as government.”
How, then, can Christians support the emergence of inclusive, moderate states in Israel and Palestine? One key is to differentiate between ideology and context, Nazir-Ali said: “Islamism, or Islamisms, are ideologies. They are systems of belief that grow because of circumstances.” Iranian Islamism came about under the corruption of the Shah’s regime, for example. Pakistani Islamism grew with the West’s policies of using Islamism against the Soviet Union. Palestinian Islamism grows under the frustration of protracted occupation.
“We mustn’t confuse reasons for an ideology’s growth with the ideology itself,” Nazir-Ali said. That is, countering extremism means dealing with both ideology and context – engaging Zionist and Islamist ideologies with the Gospel’s counter-narrative of inclusion and equality, while supporting concrete policies to defend minorities and the weak. Specifically, Nazir-Ali said, every country needs a bill of rights guaranteeing universal equality under the law. There should also be systems of accountability – international rapporteurs for human rights – monitoring states’ respect for or repression of civil rights. Lastly, some situations require properly authorized international intervention to guarantee minorities’ safety, Nazir-Ali said. The Yezidis resisting Daesh in Iraq and civilians resisting Boko Haram in Nigeria are modern examples, he said, along with Bosnians, Kurds and other genocidal threats in recent decades.
Extremism has many sources, Nazir-Ali said, including personal tyranny, warped nationalism, and current forms of Zionism and Islamism. “It’s up to Muslims to say to what extent these are distortions of Islam,” Nazir-Ali said, while Jews and Christians engage Zionism. Meanwhile, the international community should protect those who are targeted by extremism, he said. “We must deal with these ideologies on the ground.”
Bethlehem Bible College held its fourth annual Christ at the Checkpoint Conference March 7 to 10, here in the town of Christ\'s birth. The theme this year was “The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism”—a topic that aptly reflects the current context of the Middle East but has special meaning for Palestinian Christians. The number of Christians in the West Bank and Gaza has diminished significantly in the last two decades as the churches face the injustices of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands, a choked economy, and violence between Palestinians and Israelis.
The conference, named to highlight the barriers Israel has erected along the borders and within the occupied territories, brought together over 500 participants from 24 countries. About 80 participants were locals from the West Bank and another 40 from neighbouring Israel.
Rev. John Azumah is a Ghanaian Presbyterian minister and currently professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary, in the United States. He has taught in Africa, India and the UK and has published widely on the subject of Christian-Muslim relations. Being a convert from a Muslim background, he speaks with palpable authority on Islam and proposes that the fitting Gospel-centered response is one of good news; a response of reconciliation. This is a summation of his message at Christ at the Checkpoint, 2016.
Rev. Azumah began with a concise history of the personalities and ideologies which led to the origins of Boko Haram, the religiously motivated group in North East Nigeria that many will have seen reported by today’s media. Rev. Azumah illuminated Western support for key figures like early nineteenth century Uthman Dan Vodio, through to the reformer Abubakar Mahmud Gumi (died 1992) who was provided with a scholarship by the British. Both were key figures that set the scenes for Muhammed Yussef (died 2009) to found the youth movement that later became Boko Haram. Boko Haram seeks to re-implement Sharia, and like those before it, sees the prevailing government in Nigeria as unacceptably liberal and Western democracy and education as evil. Against the chilling and bloodied history of the group, he moved on to propose how Christians should respond to this kind of extremism.
"There is bloodshed in every corner; anger, frustration and rage. Someone is stabbed here, another is stabbed there. People are shot for no reason. In the middle of all of this, where is the believing community? Where are those who are willing to say no to the boundary lines, no to hate and enmity, no to death and destruction?"
President Jack Sara.
To read the whole article from Come and See click here
Sami Awad writes:
One of the most common questions asked these days is when will the situation [in the Holy Land] calm down? Despite the rhetoric we hear both sides propagate, slogans like, steadfastness in the face of the other; resistance to the violence of the other, and having a united front in combating the other, most Palestinians and Israelis wonder when will the violence stop. When will things return to the normality that everyone seems to have gotten used to?
Megan Giesecke grew up in Dallas, Texas, the heart of conservative evangelical Christian America. She shares her hometown with Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS), once a major force in promoting the doctrine of “premillennial dispensationalism” - the belief that Christians would be “raptured” from the earth before the final judgment at Armageddon. A key element of that belief holds that the modern state of Israel is a fulfilment of Bible prophecy and a harbinger of the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
New Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance to Open Christ at the Checkpoint
For immediate release
Bishop Efraim, the new Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, will be the keynote speaker in the opening session the fourth Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which will take place in Bethlehem in March 7-10th, 2016. The conference is organized by Bethlehem Bible College, and follows the success of the first three conferences (2010, 2012, and 2014). The theme of this conference will be The Gospel in the Face of Religious Extremism.
Bishop Efraim was newly appointed in this position (Read more here). He follows Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, who spoke in the previous conference in 2014. Back then Dr. Tunnicliffe said: “We in the World Evangelical Alliance believe this event, Christ at the Checkpoint, is a direct response to Jesus' call for us to be peacemakers and ambassadors of reconciliation”.
Rev. Dr. Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College, said: "We are honored and delighted to have bishop Efraim with us, who represents the majority of evangelicals around the globe. He is a man of the Word and of the Spirit. His great delight is to see the Gospel preached to the ends of the earth".
The motivation for organizing the "Christ at the Checkpoint" conference is that the Israeli Palestinian conflict with its many complexities still exists. In fact, since the last conference in March 2014, the conflict has worsened. In addition, the focus on religious extremism is an urgent necessity today. The persecution of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, including Christians, poses a big challenge to the future of Christianity in the Middle East.
The religious aspect of the Palestinian Israeli conflict, which has not been the primary issue in the past, has become more pronounced. We have seen a marked increase in religious extremism particularly within the Jewish and Muslim communities in our region, and, to a lesser degree, in the Christian community in the West. More than ever, we feel an urgent and relevant need to address these issues.
In addition, Christians worldwide continue to be divided on the Palestinian Israeli issue, favoring one side over the other. Evangelical Christians, in particular, have not contributed positively towards resolving the conflict. This conference provides a much needed platform for Evangelical Christians to learn about and become engaged in working towards Christ-led solutions for peace.
Other speakers in the conference in 2016 include Rick Love, president of Peace Catalyst International, and John Azumah, professor of World Christianity and Islam at Columbia Theological Seminary. More speakers will be announced soon. This in addition to a host of Palestinian Christian leaders and theologians.
To know more about the conference, including registration information, visit www.christatthecheckpoint
“An apocalypse (Ancient Greek: ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning “uncovering”), translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation.” - Wikipedia
In my new cover story for Sojourners, I describe seven signs that U.S. evangelicals are finally waking up to the reality faced by their sisters and brothers in Palestine. The article is behind their paywall, so I will discreetly offer seven quotes here and encourage you to read the full article on their site or subscribing to this fine magazine of faith, politics, and culture that employed me from 1999-2010.
More than 600 delegates from across the world gathered in Bethlehem in March for Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) 2014, the third such conference that aims to ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bethlehem Bible College organized the conference, inviting speakers from a wide theological and political range to discuss how evangelical Christians should respond to one of the most politicized conflicts of our time:
- What does it mean to seek Christ’s kingdom in a land-driven dispute?
- Does Jesus’ call to love our neighbours demand action in response, and if so, what kind of action?
- How are Christians to make peace?
Today God weeps over the situation in Palestine and Israel. Today God weeps over Gaza. With God, our hearts are broken when we see the carnage in Gaza and in Israel.
We at Bethlehem Bible College consistently called for a just peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. We always sought a nonviolent resolution to the conflict. “All forms of violence must be refuted unequivocally”, stated the Christ at the Checkpoint manifesto. We also believe that as long as the occupation of Palestinian territory and the siege of Gaza remain, the conflict will continue to escalate. To quote the manifesto again, “for Palestinian Christians, the occupation is the core issue of the conflict”.
The summer of violence in Gaza and Israel on Tuesday entered its fifth week after rockets, fired from inside Gaza, broke the latest ceasefire. After the attack, Israel recalled its negotiators from peace talks in Cairo, and Israeli forces launched new airstrikes.
Since the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8, the IDF has completed 1,300 air strikes, and ground troops have destroyed more than 30 cross-border tunnels. Since January, combatants inside Gaza have fired about 3,000 rockets into Israel. It is the deadliest conflict between Palestinians and Israelis since the Second Intifada, which ended in 2005. As of mid-August, more than 2,000 have died in the current conflict, including 1,975 Gazans (combatants included), 64 Israeli soldiers, and two Israeli civilians.
America’s largest Christian Zionist organization boasts about its numbers. But while their influence is a given, many Christians are slowly but surely seeing the justice of the Palestinian cause.
Text and photos by: Ryan Rodrick Beiler/Activestills.org
Christians United for Israel (CUFI), the largest Zionist Christian organization in the U.S., recently sent an email blast celebrating the milestone of “2 million members.” The Washington Post’s right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin dutifully reported on the CUFI press release, which included an additional list of impressive numbers:
According to CUFI, it has “driven hundreds of thousands of emails to government officials, held 2,162 pro-Israel events in cities and towns across the country, garnered more than 1.2 million Facebook fans, brought 304 leading pastors to Israel on 12 Pastors Leadership Tours, has trained more 2,500 students on how best to stand with Israel, presently has recognized college chapters on 140 campuses as well as an active presence at an additional 163 universities.”
Addressing Christian Zionists who brush aside the occupation by saying, ‘it’s complicated,’ an American Evangelical writes: ‘Injustice is only complicated to those who don’t suffer from it.’
By Alice Su
What would Jesus do if he were standing at a checkpoint in Israel/Palestine today? Asked that question one year ago, I would have given you a blank stare. Growing up as an evangelical Christian, I thought of Israel only as a Bible-place of God’s chosen people, quaintly holy and surely blessed. Checkpoints, occupation, Palestine – these words meant nothing for most of my 22-year-old life.
Today I write from Bethlehem at the end of “Christ at the Checkpoint,” a Christian conference that asked “WWJD?” in context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have an answer.