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Bethlehem Conference Challenges Narratives on Israel-Palestine, Christian Zionism

More than 600 Christians from around the world gathered last week in the Bethlehem to consider how to live out biblical teachings in today’s Israeli-Palestinian context.

On the eve of the conference’s start, Israel Today published an attack on the evangelical Christian gathering by the spokesperson of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

Although some later argued the spokesperson merely offered his personal opinion, Israel Today insisted he spoke in his official capacity.

“The attempt to use religious motifs in order to mobilize political propaganda and agitate the feelings of the faithful through the manipulation of religion and politics is an unacceptable and shameful act,” MFA chief spokesman Yigal Palmor offered as MFA’s statement. “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.”

Palmor also told Israel Today that he found the event to be “particularly problematic because it is designed for the evangelical Christian leadership – an extremely important audience to us.”

Called Christ at the Checkpoint, the biannual conference is sponsored by Bethlehem Bible College (BBC).

This year’s conference marked the third edition of Christ at the Checkpoint, following conferences in 2010 and 2012.

The conference uses the image of a checkpoint as a grounding point for considering theological, moral and ethical issues.

“What would Jesus do if he were standing at an Israeli checkpoint today?” asked conference director Munther Isaac to frame the four-day gathering.

“How would he act as a Palestinian? What would he say to the Israeli soldier? How would he respond to this conflict, and how should we follow in his footsteps as believers?”

Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation (EBF), attended the conference.

The EBF, a regional body of the Baptist World Alliance, covers Europe and the Middle East and therefore includes member bodies in both Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

In an email to EthicsDaily.com, Peck recounted visiting the Bethlehem checkpoint and hearing from the various speakers at the conference.

He praised the conference for being “marked by a real sense of commitment to the values of the Kingdom of God in the situation, and that this is the only real foundation for hope.”

“Christ at the Checkpoint was an intense week of standing in solidarity with Palestinian evangelicals,” Peck wrote.

“It was a rare opportunity to hear presentations and discuss the historical, political and theological issues on the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was marked by an overall concern to welcome and hear conflicting views, especially from the Messianic community.”

With the theme “Your Kingdom Come,” key themes of the conference included living out the biblical teachings of Jesus by recognizing the need to make peace, promoting human rights, bringing justice to the downtrodden, and creating reconciliation between peoples.

Speakers from numerous denominations and countries urged Christians not to allow nationalistic boundaries to divide the Christian community.

“Jesus instructed us to pray ‘Your Kingdom Come,’ which means the sick healed and dead raised, but also justice done,” BBC president Jack Sara proclaimed.

Alex Awad, pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church and dean of students at BBC, gave a presentation critiquing Christian Zionism, a theology that gives a belief that Israel must receive all the “promised land” to pave the way for the second coming of Christ.

Awad noted this theology provides support for the modern secular state of Israel regardless how the country acts. He criticized the theology for hampering efforts for peace and human rights.

“Some Christians are suspicious of peace because they’ve heard sermons that delegate peace to the Antichrist’s work,” said Awad, who had talked about the previous Christ at the Checkpoint conference in an EthicsDaily.com Skype interview.

“But the Bible calls us to be peacemakers. Could it be that rumors of war come true because we haven’t sought to advance a gospel of peace?”

Noting that some critics of the BBC have claimed the college is creating an evangelical “intifada,” Awad added, “I hope they’re right. We want to see an intifada against injustice, violence, terrorism and racism, against theologies that promote war and bloodshed. I call on evangelicals everywhere to re-examine these detrimental theologies and shake them off.”

Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, echoed Awad’s critique of Christian Zionism, particularly noting how this theology impacts how evangelicals in the U.S. view Middle East issues.

“Commitment to the secular state of Israel is part of American exceptionalist evangelicalism,” Burge explained. “Christians become afraid of disagreement with Israel. That robs the church of its prophetic voice. … Sometimes you must speak critically even of those that you love.”

The conference included speakers with a variety of perspectives, including some from Israel and the Messianic Jewish community.

Even with a diversity of voices, some Christian Zionists attacked the conference for challenging their religious-political perspective.

Peck pointed to Palestinian Baptist voices as he praised the conference in his email to EthicsDaily.com.

“A highlight for me was the outstanding contribution of younger Palestinian evangelical leaders and theologians,” Peck wrote. “These included several Baptists such as Yohanna Katanacho, Hanna Massad and Bader Mansour. These Palestinians and others are utterly committed to peace with justice, and at the same time are issuing a strong theological challenge to Christian Zionism.”

Massad once served as pastor of Gaza Baptist Church and now pastors a church for Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

He has previously addressed issues in the region for EthicsDaily.com.

“The Lord has taught me that the safest place to be is in the midst of His will,” Massad said at the conference. “He says to me, ‘Hanna, if you are in the midst of my will – even if you live in the most difficult place in the world – that’s best for you.'”

“Christ shows us the power of love and forgiveness,” he said. “Don’t allow anything to steal peace and joy from your heart. Believe me, loved ones, it’s not worth it. Don’t let bitterness come in.”

The fourth installment of the Christ at the Checkpoint will occur March 7-11, 2016.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @BrianKaylor.

Editor’s Note: For additional information about Christ at the Checkpoint, read a column by David Kerrigan, general director of BMS World Mission. You can follow him on Twitter: @DavidKerrigan3.