The challenge has never been greater for advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace. How do they sustain their commitment to both peoples, and their will to use what power they have as citizens to influence policy? American Christians can learn from the Palestinian Christians.

June 2002  

The challenge has never been greater for advocates of Israeli-Palestinian peace. How do they sustain their commitment to both peoples, and their will to use what power they have as citizens to influence policy? American Christians can learn from the Palestinian Christians.

Inspiration can be found in the example of the beleaguered Palestinian Christians. Even as the Church of the Nativity was under siege and their communities under attack, the Patriarchs and Bishops of Churches in Jerusalem met with Secretary Powell on April 13 in Jerusalem.  In the letter they gave him, they wrote, “We want to express the symbiotic relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians in this land. We want security for the Israelis and justice and freedom for the Palestinians.”
The considerable media attention given to the siege and standoff at the Church of the Nativity provides an opportunity for highlighting the presence and perspectives of Palestinian Christians.  Their example has the potential to shift the policy and opinion debates in the U.S. away from the current “us versus them” tone, and toward a more inclusive and constructive discussion.

Hostile, polarized debate is evident in street demonstrations and paid newspaper ads in Washington, D.C. and across the country. Contending administration factions vie for policy supremacy. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, according to press reports, seek to shape the administration’s involvement with Israeli-Palestinian matters to fit other objectives; i.e., the war against terrorism and overthrowing the rule of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  

On the other hand, Secretary of State Colin Powell appears to some observers to be cautiously pressing for broader and more vigorous American involvement.  At times the President’s words encourage those who yearn for leadership toward peace. In his April 4 Rose Garden speech, he said that “Israeli settlement activity must stop” and that “the occupation must end through withdrawal to secure and recognized boundaries consistent with United Nations resolutions 242 and 338.”  However, his call for Israel to halt incursions and begin withdrawal from Palestinian cities was ignored by Israeli Prime Minister Sharon without consequence.

While the U.S. is now directly engaged, the administration’s words, actions and policy seem to shift with the prevailing winds.  It is a given that the United States is a principal, if not the essential, element for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.  Yet the constraints imposed by domestic politics are considerable for this administration.  Even though the Republican party has not traditionally had close ties with American Jewish communities, a new grouping of neo-conservatives, Christian conservatives and some Jewish supporters of Israel has coalesced among Bush supporters.  


This was the theme of the annual policy conference of AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) attended by some 5,000 of its members who lobbied their members of Congress. But taking to the halls of Congress wasn’t really necessary since more than half the Senate and 90 members of the House attended the conference banquet. AIPAC  provided the citizen lobbyists with talking points calling for “additional defense assistance for Israel” and new tough sanctions legislation against Syria and the Palestinian Authority.  Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s telecast message to the conference that he is waging his part of the war on terrorism was reinforced by AIPAC’s talking points: “Israel must defend against this terror just as surely as the United States must fight and destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist groups within global reach.”  

Washington Post staff writer Thomas Edsall wrote on April 30 that “Republican party strategists are hoping to capitalize on President Bush’s strong pro-Israel policies to crack the Democratic loyalties of Jewish voters and donors who have provided vital support to the Democratic Party for decades.”  

However, votes and donations are not the only forms of political currency. Old-fashioned horse-trading is still important. The Forward, a New York Jewish weekly, reported on April 26, that AIPAC’s executive committee voted to “court Bush and his party” by endorsing several key Bush initiatives opposed by Democrats.  Among them were missile defense development and increasing domestic production of oil, ” a thinly veiled reference to drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve.”


William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, along with other prominent conservatives, wrote to President Bush in early April urging him not to force Israel to negotiate with Arafat.   To do so, “would send a most dangerous signal to our adversaries that civilized states do not have the necessary courage to fight terrorism in all its forms.”

Neo-conservative hawks are inside the administration as well as being an important part of Bush’s core constituency. This element of the Republican Party began under Ronald Reagan, whose support for missile defense drew influential, pro-Israel neo-conservatives from the Democratic Party (including Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick, his U.N. ambassador, and Richard Perle, an assistant secretary of defense).  The departure of Patrick Buchanan from the GOP reduced criticism of Israel in conservative ranks; Robert Novak is one of the few Republican-leaning commentators who is willing to criticize Israel.

Richard Perle, now chairman of the Defense Policy Council, played a fundamental role in the war against Saddam Hussein and has for a decade sought to line up political support for missile defense. When current Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was an official in the first Bush Administration, he argued that the U.S should march on Baghdad to eliminate Saddam.  


The pro-Israel sentiment of the Christian Right is nothing new.   Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Ralph Reed and groups such as the National Unity Coalition for Israel have for years opposed Middle East peacemaking efforts. In 1997, they criticized Churches for Middle EastPeace’s “Shared Jerusalem” campaign with a New York Times ad proclaiming, “Christians Call for a United Jerusalem.” They assert that Jerusalem’s status is not subject to negotiation because Israel has a divine right to Jerusalem.     

Now, Christian Right voices and political power are linked with those of neo-conservatives and AIPAC in pressuring the Congress and administration.  A Gallup survey has shown that among white evangelical Republicans 62 percent favor Israel, compared with only 8 percent for the Palestinians.  Among secular Democrats, 26 percent favor Israel and 28 percent sympathize with the Palestinians. (Washington Post, May 14)

Both Capitol Hill news weeklies have printed articles about Christian conservatives’ support for Israel.  In the National Journal of April 20, Tish Durkin writes that “Christian conservatives have proven to be as vocal, energetic and unstinting, if not more so,” in their pro-Israel stance than their Jewish counterparts. She notes this is remarkable, particularly in light of the frequency with which “the Jewish Lobby” is attributed to be the source of American government support for Israel.  

Congressional Quarterly reports that there are “several Republican conservatives who believe U.S. policy toward Israel is predicated not on politics, but on religion.” Rep. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, in a March 4 speech, said: “This is not a political battle at all.  It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.”  Reporter Miles Pomper continues, “As Pence [Mike Pence of Indiana] and others see it, a secular government in the United States should not interfere with Biblical prophecy by denying Israel its land.”  Others mentioned by CQ were House Minority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Near Eastern and South Asian subcommittee.  It was DeLay who insisted, despite pleas from the White House, on a May 2 vote in the House of the resolution he sponsored, H.Res. 392, “Expressing Solidarity with Israel in its Fight Against Terrorism.”

In January The Washington Post posed as an “intriguing question” whether “President Bush, who has been outspoken in his evangelical beliefs, privately holds Christian Zionist views.” Moshe Fox of the Israeli Embassy was quoted, “It’s one of the common explanations [of] why and how Bush is sympathetic to Israel and its cause.”  The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Lampman raised a similar point. “Media reports have speculated on whether President Bush might share Christian Zionist views, as Ronald Reagan did, and how they might affect U.S. policy.”


To welcome Christian pilgrims for the millennium celebrations, Bethlehem was revitalized and spruced up with $200 million in foreign investment. Surely the images from the news of Israeli tanks and snipers holding siege the Church of the Nativity, where armed Palestinian fighters took refuge, were troubling to all Christians.  Certainly even those people who close their minds to worldly news took note of the suffering Christian Palestinians of Bethlehem.

The percentage of Christians among the Palestinians living in Israel and Palestine has diminished to less than two percent. The Palestinian Christians and their Churches are tied to (but largely isolated because of their political situation from) Israeli Arab Christians and Jordanian Christians. The largest are the Greek Orthodox, followed by Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Anglicans (Episcopalians) and Lutherans.  There is a small but influential and long-term Quaker presence as well.  

In addition to churches with Palestinian Christian membership in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour and Ramallah, there are important institutions that serve both the Christians and Muslims in their communities.  The church-sponsored schools, universities, hospitals, orphanages, cultural and vocational centers provide more than services to the neglected population.  They are some of the significant building blocks of civil society and the bedrock of a future democratic Palestinian state.

The Palestinian Christians see themselves, and are seen by their Muslim neighbors, as an integral part of the Palestinian people.  The PLO, a secular organization under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, has always highlighted the Christian-Muslim dimension of Palestinian life, and their shared struggle for national self-determination in a state of Palestine. Chairman Arafat’s wife, Suha, is from a prominent Christian family. Hanan Mikael Ashrawi, the popular spokeswoman, is Christian.

The Patriarchs and Bishops who head the Palestinian Christian churches are not removed from the turmoil and tragedy of the war.  Daily, they are immersed in and speak of the political situation and the humanitarian disaster resulting from Palestinian opposition to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza. Yet, they profess that peace, not war, is the future and that “the Christian Church can be an instrument of peace, justice and reconciliation.”  Their April 13 letter to Secretary of State Powell is an appeal to help both sides equally implement peace and justice.  American Christians can learn about both faith and advocacy from their example.


Advocacy for peace in the Middle East by Churches for Middle East Peace holds close the well-being of all the peoples caught in the conflict, Muslim and Christian Palestinians along with Israelis — Jews, Christians and Muslims.  Our natural bonds with the Palestinian Christian community are strong and we are deeply concerned for the future of a viable, Christian presence in the Middle East.

A delegation of church leaders from the National Council of Churches of Christ met with Christian leaders in the region, including Israel and Palestine, in April.  They believe that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is key to halting the decline of the Arab Christian population, and, that thriving communities of Christians will contribute to the healing and peace process, thereby providing a bridge to reconciliation and hope.

The pro-Israel bias of the Christian right in Congress can best be countered by Christian advocacy for justice and peace; an end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure State of Israel. The need for international intervention is clear, in peacemaking and for the protection of civilians and holy sites.  

Contact your Representative and Senators. Your advocacy is especially important if they make public their strong Christian beliefs. A meeting with the Member or staff, in the local office, is the most effective advocacy.  For security and delivery reasons, your letters are best mailed to their local offices.  Call their Washington offices through the Capitol switchboard 202-225-3121.  Follow-up your call or meeting with a fax or e-mail.  Call into local talk radio shows, specifically those that are hosted by conservative Christians.

Make these points:

o    The Church of the Nativity crisis drew attention to the plight of Palestinian Christians. They are suffering enormously, and their institutions- schools and hospitals-are being attacked and undermined.  The best way to help the Christians of Palestine is to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.  

o   The degradation of the Church of the Nativity points to the need for an international presence to protect the holy places and innocent people.  The Bishops and Patriarchs of the Jerusalem Churches strongly believe that international protection must be imposed to secure the lives of the people.  Congress should support an international peacekeeping force as a step toward negotiating and implementing a final agreement.