“Christ at the Checkpoint” Conference Addresses Challenges for Palestinian Church

PNN Reporters/ Ella David and Kelly Lunde

On Monday 5th March, the opening night of Christ at the Checkpoint conference, 5 speakers spoke about different aspects of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict within the context of being a Christian.

The two themes of the evening that emerged were the need for increased understanding between Jews and Christians – inside and outside of Israel and Palestine – and how to respond to the Israeli occupation by considering ‘what would Jesus do?’

Dr Hanna Issa, General Secretary of the Islamic-Christian Committee for Protecting Jerusalem and the Holy Sites, spoke of the decline of Christians in Jerusalem since the Palestinian ‘al Nakba (the catastrophe) in 1948. In 1948 there were 29,000 Christians, now there are around 10,000. Issa appealed for Christians all over the world to support Christians in Jerusalem just as Muslims all over the world support Muslims in this city. He clarified that Christians in Palestine ‘do not have a problem with the Jews…our problem is with the occupation’.

The Mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, spoke about the Apartheid wall and its effect on Bethlehem city. He spoke about the wall being a seen wall yet, ‘there are other walls in this world – walls of religion, race, gender… we want to break down all the seen and unseen walls in the world’. He thanked the delegates for ‘breaking down the wall – not physically, but psychologically’. Batarseh continued, ‘we live in a big prison in this city but as Muslims and Christians we always have hope.’ He finished by saying that ‘with your help we can achieve peace’.

Dr Jonathan Kuttab, Chairman of the Board of Bethlehem Bible College, spoke of the controversy that the Christ at the Checkpoint conference has caused among some Jewish groups, including Messianic Jews, Israeli groups and Israeli and Jewish media. He said that ‘we’ve been accused of being enemies of Jews…some Jewish groups urged officials at Ben Gurion airport to prevent conference delegates and speakers from coming into Israel because some Evangelicals have been accused of being anti-Semitic’.

Kuttab acknowledged that it was therefore a risk that many people took to come to Palestine and that for many it was a difficult decision. He thanked everyone for coming despite these difficulties and remembered those who had decided not to come but who had expressed their solidarity with all those at the conference.

Kutab explained that the risk in coming to Palestine was that ‘some of you may be educated, challenged or inspired to alter your views. Therefore these false accusations of anti-Semitism will only increase’. He quoted the Bible passage Matthew 5:11 that speak of blessings coming to those who are falsely accused of wrong-doing.

The Keynote speech was delivered by Dr Bishara Awad, President of Bethlehem Bible College, and was entitled ‘A testimony to God’s faithfulness’. Awad spoke of how the Bible College came into being through telling the story of his childhood. He spoke of his admiration for his mother who brought up 7 children after his dad died in 1948. Awad testified how ‘God healed me of hatred towards the Jewish people that I felt for many years, despite my mother’s teachings of love and forgiveness’.

He reiterated what the other speakers had said, ‘the point of this conference is not to point the finger at anyone… but to take an honest look at the conflict and how we should respond. The least we should do is to ask the question, what would Jesus do?’ Awad acknowledged that this wasn’t easy and asked ‘how can we be peacemakers surrounded by such injustice? How can we give the message of peace, hope, and reconciliation?’ Awad closed the opening celebration by saying that ‘the purpose of this conference is not to dehumanise Israelis or Jews but to reach out to them to achieve a new level of understanding’.

Tuesday, March 6th marked the first full day of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. Seven speakers addressed approximately 600 attendees at the Intercontinental hotel in Bethlehem throughout the day with breaks for meals, question and answer sessions, refreshments and time for communal prayer.

The morning theme presented the historical context and present challenges of the Palestinian church with speakers Labeeb Madanat and Yohanna Katanocho opening the morning sessions. Palestinian pastors Munir Kakish and Nihad Salman also spoke on the specific challenges faced when pastoring a Christian church in the midst of conflict. Rev. Nihad Salman emphasized the importance of remaining in Palestine despite the difficulties and dangers citing the New Testament scripture of John 12:25.

Rev. Joel Hunter, American pastor of Northland Church in the state of Florida and spiritual advisor to U.S. President Barack Obama opened the afternoon with a speech on a Western reading of scripture. Shireen Awwad Hilal, former instructor at Bethlehem Bible College and Palestinian women’s rights advocate spoke on feminist reading of several female biblical characters.

Samih Mouris, senior pastor of Kasr El Doubara Church in Cairo also addressed the audience via video interview due to his inability to travel to Bethlehem.

Author, speaker and activist Shane Claiborne from the U.S. gave the impassioned keynote speech recounting the Christian scripture of Luke chapter 16 and giving an account of his travels to Iraq. Claiborne expressed lament over what Christians seem to be known for most in the U.S.; being anti-gay, judgmental and hypocritical and juxtaposed it with what he expressed Christ is truly known for; love, grace and the kingdom of God being established on this earth.

The evening closed with an optional viewing of With God On Our Side, a documentary focusing on the unfortunate consequences of Christian Zionism and summarizing an alternative Christian theology to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A question and answer panel discussion with journalist Ben White, professor Gary M. Burge, author and church leader Stephen Sizer, activist and Bethlehem Bible College faculty member Salim Munayer and director and producer Porter Speakman Jr., all featured in the movie, concluded the evening.

Christ at the Checkpoint conference aims to provide an opportunity for Evangelical Christians to prayerfully seek a proper awareness of issues of peace, justice, and reconciliation in the context of the realities on the ground in the Palestinian Territories. The overall theme of the conference is Hope in the Midst of Conflict.

In Pictures

Click on the pictures below to see the albums with beautiful photography

Click to see | Album Christianity in Palestine

Click to see | Album Christmas in Palestine 2011

More pictures in the GalleryImages | الصور

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