At a time in which the historic Christian population in the Middle East is fleeing a deadly resurgence of political Islam, can the persecution and discrimination faced by the dwindling evangelical minority under the Islamic- and Arab-nationalist-dominated Palestinian Authority be largely blamed on Israel and its "occupation" of the land?
For the hosts of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem this week, which has drawn more than 600 evangelicals from all over the world, the answer clearly is yes.
Assigning blame is not the stated aim of the third Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which is described by its organizers as a "movement" that seeks to challenge evangelicals worldwide to "take responsibility in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God."
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Missing this week is liberation theologian Naim Ateek, who played a prominent role in the first conference in 2010. And organizers have welcomed speakers with opposing viewpoints, such as William Wilson, the president of Oral Roberts University, and Daniel Juster, a Messianic Jewish rabbi.
But the inescapable message – which has drawn criticism from the Israeli government, Messianic Jewish leaders and an Arab Christian leader, among others – is that evangelicals in the West who embrace a "Christian Zionist" theology that regards the modern Jewish state as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy have blindly sided with Israel and influenced U.S. policy at the expense of the Palestinian people while falsely blaming the Holy Land Christians' plight on Islam and Arab nationalism.
The Palestinian Christians' problems with Israeli soldiers, insurgencies, checkpoints, walls and other restrictions, contend leaders of the host Bethlehem Bible College, is not an unintended consequence of Israel's existential struggle against a Muslim-dominated Arab world and the Palestinian Fatah and Hamas governments that refuse to recognize its right to exist as a Jewish state and have vowed, ultimately, to destroy the Jews.
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The Palestinian evangelicals, who during the conference have told stories of heartbreaking suffering over several generations, generally espouse the "Palestinian narrative" that regards the establishment of Israel in 1948 as "the Nakhba," or catastrophe, brought about illegally by colonial powers who chased the Arabs from their homes.
Israel, they maintain, is a powerful oppressor of a virtually helpless people that continues to commit “war crimes" targeting innocent civilians.
At the opening of the conference Monday, hosted by the evangelical Bethlehem Bible College, the former president of the college declared that "as evangelicals, we pledge our allegiance to Palestinian President Abbas and the prime minister."
Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah had been invited to open the conference but backed out at the last minute. Critics of the invitation, point out that Hamdallah was the head of a university described as a "hotbed" of terrorism and labeled by Hamas as a "greenhouse for martyrs." Under Hamdallah's leadership, the university hosted an exhibition celebrating the Palestinian suicide-bomb attack on a Sbarro pizza parlor in Jerusalem in 2001 that killed 15 people.
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At the second Christ at the Checkpoint conference, in March 2012, conference director Munther Isaac introduced then-Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad and not only affirmed support for the Palestinian government but also declared that all is well with the evangelical minority.
"Palestinian Christians have always enjoyed the support of the Palestinian leaders," Isaac said. "We worship with freedom and exercise our rights like all Palestinians."
However, in a response to a Wall Street Journal article that month by then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren titled "Israel and the Plight of Middle East Christians," Isaac acknowledged that evangelicals face "some struggles" as a minority, including the murder of the manager of Gaza's only bookstore after the ruling Hamas called for Muslim attacks on Christians.
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But Isaac clearly has characterized the approach of many Western evangelicals to Islam as misinformed and even "Islamophobic," a term popularized by Islamic radicals in the West, including the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, a documented Muslim Brotherhood front that was an unindicted co-conspirator in a plot to fund Hamas.
For the 2012 conference, Isaac conducted a video interview with Rev. Samih Mouris, Pastor of Kasr El Dobareh in Cairo, Egypt, in the aftermath of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament.
Isaac said that Christians, "especially Christians in the West, view the Middle East with trepidation, particularly because of the Islamic trends or currents."
"They see Islam as the greatest enemy," he said. "It is a kind of Islamophobia that seems to control their thinking."
The 2012 Christ at the Checkpoint conference, nevertheless, included presentations by Palestinian Christians who admitted fundamentalist Islam is a serious threat, noted CAMERA, a group that monitors U.S. reporting on the Middle East.
Nihad Salman, a pastor in Beit Jala, said the Christian minority, comprising only 1 or 2 percent of the Palestinian population, express fear "of what is happening in the Arabic Spring."
"Will the Muslims you know, take over? If it is true or not true. Whatever the outcome of that ... what will happen? Will after Saturday come Sunday? So this is the type of thing that makes Christians want to run away."
The Palestinian pastor was alluding to a Middle Eastern proverb about the persecution by Muslims of the Saturday worshipers, the Jews, and Sunday worshipers, the Christians.
Bethlehem was more than 80 percent Christian when Israel was founded in 1948. But after the Yasser Arafat-led Palestinian Authority took control, the city’s Christian population plummeted to its current 23 percent of a population of about 22,000. The figure is considered generous, because it includes the satellite towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jala. Some estimates place Bethlehem’s actual Christian population as low as 12 percent, with hundreds of Christians emigrating each year. In Israel, where 34,000 Christians were counted in 1948, there now are about 150,000.
Elimination 'in stages'
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the successor to Arafat, who is revered as an iconic figure in Palestinian culture, reaffirmed recently his position that the Palestinians will never recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
While Israel's population is comprised of about 20 percent Arab citizens, who enjoy the same rights as Jews, Abbas has declared that any Palestinian state must be completely free of Jews.
Last July, he told reporters: “In a final resolution, we would not see the presence of a single Israeli –civilian or soldier – on our lands.”
Many Palestinian Authority officials have acknowledged to Arabic-language audiences that while they can't reveal it to the world, their strategy is to eliminate the Jewish state "in stages" through terrorism and diplomacy.
A senior Palestinian Authority official, Fatah Central Committee member Abbas Zaki, told Syrian TV in January that any agreement will simply be the "first stage" in eradicating Israel.
Zaki said in a 2011 interview with Al Jazeera that "it is impossible to realize the inspiring idea, or the great goal (of eliminating the Jewish state) in one stroke."
"If I say that I want to remove it from existence, this will be great, great, [but] it is hard. This is not a [stated] policy. You can't say it to the world. You can say it to yourself."
On Palestinian Authority TV this week, Zaki expressed his belief, regarding the Israelis, that "Allah will gather them so we can kill them."
The charter or covenant of Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and has a joint agreement with Abbas and Fatah, restates the parent Muslim Brotherhood's slogan of "Allah is its goal, the prophet is the model, the Quran its constitution, jihad its path, and death for the sake of Allah its most sublime belief." It says Israel "will rise and will remain erect until Islam eliminates it as it had eliminated its predecessors."
The Jews' 3,000-year connection to the land is regarded as an exaggeration or complete fabrication in Palestinian Authority media and schools, and Jews' are demonized by political leaders, religious clerics, media and even PA TV childrens' programs.
At the end of the first day of this week's Christ at the Checkpoint, Alex Awad, a professor at Bethlehem Bible College and pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, stated he is "not against Jews living in this country," emphasizing the "gospel is and should be good news for both Palestinians and Israelis.
"I want Palestinians, Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims to live in this land in peace," Awad said. "I am hopeful because I believe in God, who loves the Jews and Palestinians. When I look to God, I know peace is coming."
How then, many ask, can Bethlehem Bible College defend the Palestinian Authority and its "alternative" history, when PA leaders have clearly contrary aspirations for the future of the Holy Land?
Islam and subjugation
A Messianic Jewish speaker at this week's Christ at the Checkpoint, Daniel Juster, has suggested the anti-Israel position of Palestinian Christian leaders can be understood in the context of the historic relationship between Muslims and Christians.
He said in a letter to Messianic congregations prior to the conference that "our Palestinian Christian brothers and sisters" do not "speak out on the macrocosmic issues, the powers of Islam that seek to destroy Israel and Christianity or at least establish dhimmitude for them," employing a term for the social condition of Christians and Jews living under subjugation to Islamic rulers.
"They do not emphasize that there would be no security barrier if there were not suicide bombings and other terror attacks," Juster said. "So they emphasize suffering under Israel and not under the rule of the Arab Muslims. Maybe this is so they can address one injustice realm without being killed."
That view is affirmed by Mark Durie, an Australian scholar of Islam, in his book about Islam and its historic relationship with Christians and Jews, "The Third Choice."
Durie believes that the response of the tiny Christian minority in the Holy Land to Islam can only be understood in the context of the concept of "dhimmitude," a term that has been dismissed as a myth and "Islamophobic."
But he cites a Palestinian Authority official who upheld the "dhimma" as the proper model for Christians living in Muslim lands. And at the second Christ at the Checkpoint, in 2012, Palestinian pastor Labeeb Madanat, who works for the Bible Societies in Israel and Palestine, acknowledged "there are pressures" and "discrimination" under the "dhimma system."
"The dhimma system is a system of discrimination. We do not deny that," he said.
Durie contends Palestinian Christian leaders, referring to the broader population that includes mainline and evangelical denominations, suffer from a form of "Stockholm Syndrome" in which they side with their "captors."
"It is easier to embrace Islam and deny the problem of potential violence, than to face the alternative of fear. It is safer to feel good thoughts about Islam, than to have to deal with hard truths," Durie writes.
He cites the investigation of Justin Reid Weiner, who found that the human rights situation of Christians living in the Holy Land had deteriorated since the Oslo Accords in 1994 and the establishment of rule under the Palestinian Authority.
Weiner describes a vicious cycle, in which "dhimmis, eager to placate the Muslims and afraid if they do not, identify strongly with Palestinian nationalist aspirations (including anti-Israeli rhetoric)."
This "leads them to deny the persecution of their community," Weiner contends.
Durie cites a Palestinian Christian cleric who "compared the behavior of Christian dhimmis to that of battered wives and children, who continue to defend and even identify with their tormenter even as the abuse persists."
Durie also cites Muslim Palestinian writer Abd al-Nasser al-Najjar, who described the confiscation of Christian lands by Muslims in Bethlehem and elsewhere. Al-Najjar said Christians are silent "so as not to attract attention" and when the do attempt to take steps to retrieve their property, they can be subjected to death threats.
Durie noted widespread distrust of religious leaders among Palestinian Christians, who "tell the newspapers that everything is OK."
As an example, Durie cites Father Labib Kobtl of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who urged rejection of "the propaganda that wants to prove that there were any studied or willed persecution from our Muslims brothers and sisters of the Christians."
"We consider it mere propaganda against Islam, a cold war against our Muslim brothers that only benefits the Zionists of Israel," he said.
Durie concludes that displays "of devotion to the Umma (Muslim community) such as this may appear to purchase some degree of temporary immunity from Muslim extremists, but they reinforce the cloak of silence over the sufferings of the Christian community, and contribute to the worsening human rights situation."
A Christ at the Checkpoint speaker, Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, in his book “Sailing Through Troubled Waters: Christianity in the Middle East,” describes the Quran as “an Arab Judeo-Christian liturgy” that presents a “positive view of Jewish and Christian scriptures.”
Another Christ at the Checkpoint speaker, Colin Chapman, an author and expert in Islamic studies, said in his 2012 lecture “A Christian Response to Radical Islam" that if Israel "had complied with famous U.N. Resolution 242 in 1967, Hamas might never have come into existence."
He further declared that if Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982, "there might be no Hezbollah today."
'Manipulation of religion'?
Though they hold a variety of political and theological views, the organizers of Christ at the Checkpoint largely are united in the belief that fellow evangelicals, particularly in the West, have reflexively supported the state of Israel on dubious grounds at the expense of Palestinian Christians, who trace their lineage back to the first church, 2,000 years ago.
Many of the strongest voices in the movement in the U.S., including Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Church in Illinois, describe their position as a "third way" between evangelicals who support the 20th century Zionist movement that led to the founding of the state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy and supporters of violent Palestinian resistance.
A survey by the Pew Research Center in October 2013 showed that in the United States, "White evangelical Protestants are twice as likely as American Jews to favor stronger U.S. support for Israel and 82 percent say that God gave Israel to the Jewish people.”
In a response to her critics in 2011, Hybels said she believed "followers of Jesus ought be outspoken in their support of peace and safety for all Jews, and the right of Israeli civilians to live without being subjected to rocket fire and suicide attacks.'
"At the same time," she said. "I wholeheartedly support justice for the Palestinians."
She acknowledged that her political stance is based on her personal interactions.
Some, Hybels said, have accused her of moving from "an accurate 'Zionist theology,' which supports the state of Israel, to a dangerous "Palestinian theology" that delegitimizes Israel."
"That is not true," she wrote. "I hold the same theology regarding Israel, the land, the church and Jesus that I have held for 30 years. What has changed is my personal engagement with the living people of the Holy Land – both Israelis and Palestinians – who have suffered from the ongoing conflict."
An Arab Christian, however, insisted in a piece published by Israel Today just before the conference that the views of the organizers of Christ at the Checkpoint are by no means the exclusive voice of local Christians.
Shadi Khalloul, chairman of the Aramaic Christian Association in Israel, said a "growing number of Israeli Christians have been speaking out with a new voice and calling for integration into Israeli Jewish society."
"At the same time, many of us are asking for a halt to the cynical use of local Christians as pawns in the Palestinian cause or other Arab efforts to destroy Israel as a democratic Jewish state," he said.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, meanwhile, condemned the conference, stating the "through the manipulation of religion and politics is an unacceptable and shameful act."
"Using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy," the government said.
Israel Today reported that in personal correspondence, an Israeli official said that “unfortunately, we well know about the [Christ at the Checkpoint] conference,” explaining that for the Israeli government, the event “is particularly problematic, because it is designed for the evangelical Christian leadership – an extremely important audience to us.”
After Christ at the Checkpoint organizers denied the report, from the stage, earlier this week, Israel Today published a follow-up report in which it stood by the statement, attributing it to Yigal Palmor, the chief spokesman of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Responding to the Israeli government's statement, a Christ at the Checkpoint speaker, Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College in Illinois, told Christianity Today by email that it is "tragic on so many levels" and "ill-informed."
The statement itself, Burge said, "is an incitement."
"This is simply the only gathering of Palestinian Christians in the world who are trying to have their voices heard by their brothers and sisters in Christ," he said. "I'm at the event. It is packed. And it is a moving testimony to these Christians' faithfulness to Christ amidst dreadful circumstances. Israeli bureaucrats simply want those voices silenced."
Burge said he thought the Israeli government "is worried about this gathering because every year evangelicals are growing in their understanding of this conflict and questioning the standard Israeli narrative of things."
Jews 'replaced by the church?
Burge joined the Messianic Jewish leader Juster in a session that addressed the question "In Christian theology, has the New Testament church replaced or superseded Old Testament Israel?"
Burge said he preferred the term "fulfillment theology" to "replacement theology," explaining he believes that Christ and the church didn't replace the Jews in the Abrahamic covenant but are a fulfillment of it.
But he argued against the teaching that the Jewish people today, who largely are nonobservant, are entitled to the benefits God promised to Abraham in the Old Testament, including the land of Israel.
The benefits, he said, through Christ, are not only for Israel but for the entire world.
Burge applied his theological view to the current political situation in the Holy Land.
"When I, no matter who I am, see my religious heritage as the basis of privilege, I cannot be a blessing to the nations," he said.
Juster, acknowledging the church's central role in the fulfillment of the covenant, insisted, however, that the Jewish people still have a special place in future prophecy, citing passages in Romans 9 and 11 that state the covenant made with the Jews is "irrevocable."
"It's hard to read that," he said, "and not believe that there is a destiny for this land."
He pushed back against a general theme espoused by the Christ at the Checkpoint movement that the theological view that the Jews have a special place in God's future is largely confined to a sectarian theological stream known as "dispensationalism," pointing out that the Roman Catholic Church in Vatican II repudiated "replacement theology" and interpreted the Bible "straightforwardly."
Christ at the Checkpoint organizers have been particularly critical of evangelical figures in the U.S. such as Laurie Cardoza Moore, founder and president of Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, whose mission is "to increase awareness and action by educating Christians about their biblical responsibility to stand with their Jewish brethren and the state of Israel."
She contends the conference is "promoting a false historical narrative and a heretical doctrine" she describes as "a Greco-Roman replacement theology that replaces Israel with the church as the recipient of promises God meant for the Jews."
Cardoza, who serves as a special envoy to the United Nations on Middle East affairs, is set to make her case in a documentary titled "Israel Indivisible: The Case for the Ancient Homeland."
"When God made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he made that covenant with them forever," Cardoza Moore said.
God told Abraham, she said, "all the land you see, I am giving it to you and your descendents forever."
'No way to make peace'
Doctrinal disputes aside, the conflict appears no closer to resolution this week, as Israel prepares to respond to the firing of dozens of rockets from the Gaza Strip aimed at Israeli population centers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently pointed to President Abbas' celebration of the return of from Israeli prisons of Palestinians who had been convicted of murdering Israelis for the sake of the Palestinian cause as an illustration of the "fundamental difference between us" and the Palestinians.
"While we are willing to take painful, unparalleled steps to try and reach an agreement that would put an end to the conflict, they, along with their most senior leadership, are celebrating," Netanyahu said. "Murderers are not heroes."
The prime minister said "this is no way to educate toward peace."
"This is no way to make peace. Peace can be achieved only when the education toward incitement and toward the destruction of Israel is stopped," he said. "There will be peace only if our security and settlement interests are ensured. Peace will be established only if we could defend ourselves, by ourselves, against any threat."