Over 600 Christians of more than 20 nationalities traveled to the West Bank city of Bethlehem last week to participate in the third biannual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference. The conference, organized by Bethlehem Bible College, aimed to engage Christian evangelicals on the theology of Christian Zionism, expose them to the daily realities experienced by Palestinian Christians living under Israeli military occupation and challenge them to participate in peacemaking. This year’s theme, “Your Kingdom Come,” explored how God’s kingdom should look in Israel-Palestine and how conference participants can help make that kingdom a reality. As founding former president of Bethlehem Bible College, Bishara Awad, said during his opening remarks, “The gospel is and should be good news for both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Speakers included more than 25 Palestinians and internationals, including Geoff Tunnicliffe (Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance), Joseph Cumming (previous director of Yale University Divinity School’s Reconciliation Program), Sami Awad (Holy Land Trust director), Nashat Filmon (Palestinian Bible Society director) and Jack Sara (Bethlehem Bible College president) as well as Messianic Jewish leaders such as Evan Thomas and Daniel Juster.
The conference addressed topics ranging from the history and theology of Christian Zionism, to nonviolence, replacement vs. fulfillment theology, forgiveness, the history and future of the Palestinian Church, and the nature of God’s kingdom. One frequently articulated theme was the Christian call to peacemaking. Peter Kuzmic, founding president of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Zagreb, Croatia, criticized what he termed evangelicals’ “over-spiritualization” of the kingdom of God as they “passively wait” for God to bring it about. “The church is not a waiting room for heaven,” he said, “The church is God’s transformative agent in the world today.”
Conference participants were also given a glimpse of what daily life is like for Palestinians under military occupation. They had the opportunity to visit the checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, a fifteen-minute walk from the conference venue, where an estimated 2,500 Palestinian workers pass every day, many arriving in the middle of the night to take their place in line and await the 5 a.m. opening time in order to reach their jobs in Israel, often just a few miles away in Jerusalem. These workers are the coveted few who receive permits, and even they are not allowed to drive their cars to work, instead having to wait unpredictable lengths of time at the checkpoint while they risk losing their day jobs if they are late. Conference participants also toured East Jerusalem, annexed to Israel in 1967, and Hebron, occupied by Israel in 1967. In Jerusalem, participants learned how difficult it is to maintain Jerusalem residency as a Palestinian, as they face a severe lack of municipal services, the invasion of Israeli settlements in the middle of their neighborhoods, frequent child arrests, lack of building permits and ongoing home demolitions, the inability to be united with family members or spouses who do not have Jerusalem residency, and the continuous need to prove their center of life is in Jerusalem, from their taxes to school attendance to workplace. In Hebron, participants learned about the consequences local Palestinians face due to the Israeli settlement in the middle of the old city, restricting their travel, making their main business district a ghost town and subjecting both children and adults to harassment and physical attacks from ideological settlers. Participants were also invited to join in a Catholic mass that takes place weekly as a form of nonviolent protest against the threat posed by the Israeli separation barrier to divide the Cremisan monastery and its olive groves from the rest of West Bank town Beit Jala.
This glimpse of West Bank life was made even more real – and the mission of the conference more urgent – by clashes that broke out in front of the conference venue on the first full day of the event. The venue, the Intercontinental Hotel, is 100 meters from the eight-meter high concrete separation wall. The separation wall will stretch 440 miles long upon completion, of which 85 percent will lie inside the West Bank and not along the Green Line, the internationally recognized border of Israel. The hotel is also near the Al-Azza refugee camp, where Palestinian youth organized a rally to protest the Israeli army’s killing of Palestinians earlier in the week. In response, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and at least two rounds of live ammunition.
Conference participants were forced to use an alternate route to walk between the conference venue and the Bethlehem Bible College, where lunch was served. During announcements, participants were informed that Israeli forces had killed five Palestinians since the beginning of the conference. In response, Palestinian militants fired several dozen rockets from Gaza into southern Israel, and Israel retaliated with air strikes and threats of “increasing force” (Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu) and a “reoccupation of Gaza” (Israeli foreign minister Lieberman).
It was in this setting that Palestinian physician Izzeldin Abuelaish spoke to the conference via Skype, as he was denied entry to the West Bank for the conference by Israeli authorities. His daughters Bessan, Mayar and Aya were killed when an Israeli tank shelled their home in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 22-day offensive on the Gaza Strip. Abuelaish has since founded the Daughters for Life Foundation in their memory, providing scholarships to young Middle Eastern women, and become an outspoken advocate for nonviolence and reconciliation. He encouraged the audience to listen well, to reject anger and to forgive.
The Christ at the Checkpoint conference has been a target for much criticism. Media outlet Israel Today reported that Yigal Palmor, chief press aide for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told them in a personal correspondence that the event is “using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests” and reported that “We have already actively targeted specific participants in the conference…in a coordinated effort to expose them to our side of the story.” Palmor asserted that this event “is particularly problematic, because it is designed for the evangelical Christian leadership – an extremely important audience to us.” An October 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed that in the United States, “twice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%)” and “white evangelical Protestants also are more likely than Jews to favor stronger U.S. support of Israel” (46% vs. 31%).
In the midst of this ongoing criticism and the unfolding conflict surrounding it, the conference continued.
It concluded Friday with a manifesto calling for Christians to love their enemies, pray for justice, peace and reconciliation, advocate for justice and peace, encourage others to visit Palestinian Christians living under military occupation, continue education and conversation on this manifesto, and support the work of the Bethlehem Bible College and other ministries involved in peace, justice, and reconciliation.
Kate Taber is the PC(USA) mission coworker to Israel-Palestine as Facilitator for Peacemaking and Mission Partnerships. She has also lived in the area twice previously, once as a volunteer with the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Program and once as a fellowship recipient from Princeton Theological Seminary.