BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) — Hundreds of peace activists, church leaders, evangelical Christians and academics will meet in Bethlehem on Monday for five days of dialogue and discussion about the role of Christian Zionism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
First held in 2010, the Christ at the Checkpoint conference has grown in size and stature over the past three years and will welcome over 700 participants from March 10-14 at the Bethlehem Bible College, located a mere 100 meters from Israel’s separation wall.
Conference director Munther Isaac says the number and diversity of participants this year, together with opposition to the event from elements of the evangelical right, reflect the growing impact of a forum designed to challenge evangelical theological beliefs which have long legitimized Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“Just the fact that evangelicals are talking about Palestine and Israel is a success,” Isaac told Ma’an on Wednesday.
The conference aims to discuss the realities of the injustices in Palestine, empower the role of the Palestinian church in achieving peace, and explore the role of Christianity, above all the evangelical church, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Jack Sara, President of the Bethlehem Bible College, says that the conference is also an invitation to international Christians to come and learn about the local context of the Palestinian struggle.
“We feel that the Palestinian people have been oppressed for so long and their voice needs to be heard,” Sara told Ma’an.
“A lot of the Christian world does not know that there is an existence of Palestinian Christians who live in Palestine and Israel and who are suffering because of the conflict.”
The conference will host a wide range of speakers and aims to both inform the Western world about the existence of Palestinian Christians and demonstrate that the Palestinian church is active on the ground and an integral part of Palestinian society, Isaac says.
“The conference will highlight the injustices for sure, this is one of our key goals, but we will not be adopting a victimization mentality. We want to show that here is a living, hopeful culture which is looking forward despite all of the challenges.”
Shift in evangelical attitudes
From 100 or so international participants in 2010, this year’s conference will host church leaders, mission agencies, and official representatives from different Christian denominations, in a sign that traditional evangelical attitudes to Israel and the occupation of Palestine are slowly beginning to change.
Once an automatic support base for pro-Israel US policies, evangelicals in the United States are slowly beginning to join the debate about the practical implications of their theological beliefs, Isaac says, and Christ at the Checkpoint has provided a platform that had previously never existed.
According to the Pew Research Center, white evangelical Protestants are twice as likely as American Jews to favor stronger US support for Israel and 82 percent say that God gave Israel to the Jewish people.
Isaac acknowledges that political and economic support for Israel from US evangelicals is “real, and measured on the ground,” but says that there is a significant generational shift in attitudes among young evangelicals which is beginning to challenge the dominant theological narrative justifying Israel’s occupation.
“I think it’s going to take some time, but there are positive signs that the younger evangelical generation are more interested in social justice. They are more knowledgeable, they know more about the conflict so they can make informed decisions.”
Church leaders in the US are also now feeling more comfortable to positively engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict instead of defending Israel as a default position, Isaac says.
“Our message is rather than engage in a discussion about who has a divine right to the land, let’s engage in a discussion about how we can advance peace among Palestinians and Israelis and how the church can promote a shared land concept,” Isaac says.
“It is slow, but things are moving in the right direction.”
Growing opposition sign of success
As in previous years, the conference has been widely discussed among the evangelical community in the United States, the Israeli press, and by Jewish groups, who fear that Christ at the Checkpoint represents a turning point in dividing the US evangelical support base for Israel.
A recent blog in the Jerusalem Post described the conference as “anti-Israel, anti-Zionist” and “dangerous,” while an article in the Middle East Quarterly described the Bethlehem Bible College and the Christ at the Checkpoint conference as playing leading roles in a growing “anti-Israel” narrative among evangelical groups.
An article in December by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, an Israeli think tank, described the original Christ at the Checkpoint conference as part of an “Evangelical Intifada”, and noted that the 2012 conference could be “legitimately described as a watershed moment for the cause of anti-Zionism in American Evangelicalism.”
One article in Israel Today went as far as labeling Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, who will attend this year’s conference, as a “terror-Linked Palestinian Official”, and evidence of the conference’s “true underlying message.”
Isaac says there has been an “increased density of attacks” in the run-up to this year’s conference which often target individual members of the Palestinian evangelical community.
Despite some of the opposition, the attacks have generally become more “sophisticated,” Isaac says, a clear indication that the conference is being taken seriously as a movement which can no longer be ignored in the wider pro-Israel evangelical community.
Isaac stresses though that progress in challenging the influence of Christian Zionism in the United States is dependent on a number of factors, including the outcome of the current peace process, the possibility of a return to violence, and the ongoing conflict in Syria.
“We talk about hope, and it is our belief that only forgiveness and true reconciliation is the way forward, forgiveness that is based on justice. Palestinians must forgive Israelis and Israelis must forgive Palestinians, I believe we are both victims in this conflict.”
By: Charlie Hoyle