For the fifth time since 2010, Palestinian Christians successfully organised an international conference that theologically and practically confronts Christian fundamentalists, who try to justify Israeli occupation and aggression against Palestinians.
The Christ at the Checkpoint conference is organised every two years by the Bethlehem Bible College. This year’s five-day conference that began on Monday, May 28th is attended by over 400 people, some 210 of whom came from around the world. Among those attending is Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance Efraim Tendero, who said that he was pressured not to come. During the conference, participants are given tours and and opportunity to meet with Palestinians from all walks of life.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who wanted to speak at the conference but was unable to because of his health condition, sent his Foreign Minister Riyad Maliki to address the conference and outline the Palestinian position.
Riyad Maliki told evangelicals attending the conference in Bethlehem to “invest in peace, not in weapons, unless Israel commits to respect international law, including the Palestinians right to life.” He asked Christian evangelicals how “can we work together to produce love and peace”. Maliki called Jesus “a revolutionary and ultimate champion of human rights and dignity”.
Before the conference began, Professor Joseph Cumming, pastor of the International Church at Yale University, told me that he was invited to speak on the topic of seeing Muslims through the eyes of Jesus. “The challenge to Christians around the world is to think of the Palestinian context in the eyes of Jesus,” he said. Cumming, who is also director of the Reconciliation Programme at Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, also believes that “unfortunately, Christians, and particularly American Christians, do not ask the question of what Jesus would do in dealing with a conflict such as the Palestine-Israel one”.
Cumming admits that there is a rising problem in America’s evangelical community and the wider society. “We have bigotry towards Muslims and hostility towards Palestinians and towards Arab Muslims in general that has nothing to do with the Christian faith, but everything to do with American white nationalism. It is the antithesis of the faith in Jesus Christ.” He argued that the rise of Donald Trump is not the cause of the problem, but a symptom. “It has made it more urgent that every Christian leader must say that Jesus taught us to love our neighbours and Jesus rejects bigotry and prejudice.”
Munther Isaac, director of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, told me that this is the first time in the era of Trump and the move of the US embassy, that Palestinians and others will have a say regarding attempts to hijack Christianity to support political decision. “Although we are witnessing a reemergence of the Christian Zionist camp, we are confident that this is an artificial rise that has no basis among young people, among academics, among theologians or Christians and evangelical Christian elite.”
Isaac, who is the pastor of the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem, says that organisers “are going back to the roots and theology in an attempt to challenge Christian Zionist theology and in a way that makes it clear that it does not reflect Christian values”. Isaac says that the Christ that Christian fundamentalists talk about puts one side in a conflict against the other, opposed to peace violates international law and is the farthest thing from peacemaking.
Reverend Alex Awad, the theological initiator of the conference, told me that the purpose of Christ at the Checkpoint was, and still is, “to have Christian leaders and theologians come to Bethlehem from all around the world, look at the segregation wall, the settlements, the checkpoints, the refugee camps and all the other injustices that Palestinians face daily, then look at the Bible and seek a fresh inspiration as they examine the teachings of Christ on themes such as peace, justice and God’s love to all races”.
In a conference on Christian Zionism in Bethlehem, Palestine seems like the most appropriate way to confront fundamentalists who try to make God a real estate agent that takes land from one group and gives it to another. The Palestinian response was best summarised by the conference director: “Many evangelical Christians will come and say, God gave this land to the Jewish people and it is theirs...and we say, what does that mean on the ground? Should we pack? Should we accept to live as second-class citizens all under occupation just because of that promise?”