"This conference is not about taking sides," said the chairman of Bethlehem Bible College, Tanas Kassis, in his opening remarks to the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, held last week in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. "We don’t want you to go back and say, I’m on the Palestinian side or I’m on the Israeli side. This conference is about building awareness, this conference is about having healthy discussions."
The theme of this biannual conference is "Christ at the Center," but is the Messiah indeed at the heart of the discussions at this controversial gathering?
The speakers went to emphasize the struggle and the hardships of the Palestinian people as a result of Israeli occupation. No criticism of the Palestinian Authority (PA) was offered, and little room was left for pluralistic thought on the circumstances that brought about the current status quo. PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki made a purely political speech pushing the nationalistic Palestinian agenda. Support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement was also heard.
A lot of attention was paid to the recent transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem. "This move is a crime," insisted Nicola Khamis, the mayor of Beit Jala. "This is something we absolutely reject here, and I would like to take this opportunity with the president, Bishop Efraim, representing many evangelicals around the world, to say [that] we have to stop this, and please communicate. Let’s put pressure, to say that we reject this." Criticism of US President Donald Trump and his policies was also prevalent, with many saying that peace had never been pushed further away. "He [Trump] brought us a nightmare," claimed Rev. Alex Awad.
The messages at the conference were nationalistic and one-sided. Biblical motifs were employed to back-up and justify a political agenda, and the high moral standard of the Bible was used to call upon the international Evangelical community to side with them in their battle against the "occupier" – Israel – with no heed paid to the broader realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The victim strategy was neatly applied, and many big words were used to stress the suffering of the Palestinians, like human rights, freedom, civil rights, humanitarian crisis, wall of separation, demeaning checkpoints, etc. I do not mean to disregard the suffering of the Palestinian people in any way, shape or form. I believe it is real, to some degree, but the attendees of this conference were not getting the full picture.
Much effort went into educating the listeners against Christian Zionism. Talks were given on the subject of Replacement Theology, and theology of the land. In the eyes of the organizers, the theme of "Christ at the Center" means that Evangelical Christians should abandon Israel from their faith-walk and embrace Christ's high moral teachings, that are focused instead on the oppressed, naked, widowed and orphaned - in other words, the Palestinians.
Dr. Michael Brown offered a glimmer of hope and gave attendees a taste of the other side. "The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him." (Proverbs 18:17) Brown explained that there are solid reasons behind the establishment of checkpoints and walls. Their purpose isn’t to oppress the Palestinians, but to protect the Israelis. He went on to explain that God is not done with the Jewish people, and that God still has a purpose and a future for them in the Land of Israel. He moved on to stress the dangers of Replacement Theology and the harm it caused the Jewish people throughout history.
The Christians in the West Bank, although a minority, strongly affiliate themselves with the Palestinian people and side with, pray for and positively support the Palestinian Authority and it’s leaders. They elevate nationalism above the Christian faith that they claim to profess. The welcoming of a figure from the Zionist camp (Dr. Brown) is very reassuring, as it may be a sign that REAL dialogue at these conferences may soon be very much possible. It is only when both Palestinians and Christian Zionists will understand that they are citizens of heaven and put Christ, and not the Land, TRULY at the center that we will see progress, and the checkpoints removed.
PHOTO: A demonstration at the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The anti-Israel BDS movement seen there was widely praised by the speakers at the Christ at the Checkpoint conference. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)