Bethlehem on Israel

Speakers included radical religious leaders who promoted disturbing positions on Israel.

Bethlehem conference 521 (photo credit: Dexter van Zile/ CAMERA)
Bethlehem conference 521
(photo credit: Dexter van Zile/ CAMERA)
The Palestinian Christian organizers of the “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference held in Bethlehem in mid-March are billing it as “a major breakthrough” in the Evangelical world’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by bringing together for the first time a broad spectrum of Christian leaders to discuss issues of peace and reconciliation.
But critics are concerned that presentations by a few token defenders of Israel, including Messianic Jews, were being used as a “fig leaf” to hide the conference’s real agenda of seeking to undermine the Evangelical movement’s traditional support for Israel.
The annual Checkpoint conference, sponsored once again by the Bethlehem Bible College, drew an estimated 600 Christian participants, most coming from abroad. Due to the well-known anti-Israel stands of many of its scheduled speakers, the five-day gathering was already drawing heat weeks beforehand.
For instance, B’nai B’rith issued a statement in February warning that presenters such as Dr. Gary Burge, Rev. Stephen Sizer, Ben White and Colin Chapman “all have a troubling history of demonizing and delegitimizing Israel, downplaying the misdeeds of Israel’s adversaries and deriding Jewish historical claims.”
Additionally, four Messianic Jewish groups issued a pre-event statement protesting the “supersessionist theology that underlies [the] conference agenda, and which has been a source of anti- Semitism and even anti-Jewish violence for centuries.”
Indeed, many of the main speakers at the first Checkpoint conference in 2010 were previously involved in events held by the Sabeel Center, which espouses a radical brand of Palestinian Liberation theology that would seek to justify violence by the “oppressed” Palestinians against the “oppressor” Israel on biblical grounds.
In one sample of his disturbing rhetoric, Sabeel director Rev. Naim Ateek, an Anglican canon, once told followers in an Easter message: “It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him... The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily.”
Over the years, several Sabeel speakers also denied the authority of Scripture.
For instance, the late Prof. Michael Prior denounced the Bible as “a dangerous book” written by “very narrow minded, xenophobic, perhaps militaristic… pinheaded bigots,” and which mandates genocide.
These are positions that would make most Evangelicals wince. Thus the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, first launched in 2010, seems to be an attempt by certain Palestinian clerics and their allies abroad to move away from Sabeel and offer a message more appealing to Evangelicals. This year, that effort included inviting new voices into the conference more supportive of Israel.
This year’s roster of speakers, for example, included Rev. Wayne Hilsden of the King of Kings Community fellowship in Jerusalem and local Messianic Jewish leaders Evan Thomas and Richard Harvey.
Still, concerns remained that these voices would be drowned out by the overwhelming chorus of Israel critics at the conference, and Checkpoint 2012 would largely promote a one-sided message based on a deeply flawed historical narrative of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and highly suspect theology.
Nonetheless, the conference sponsors have begun to achieve a key aim of drawing more speakers and attendees from the broader Evangelical movement, though from its more liberal wing, such as Tony Campolo, Ron Sider and Lynne Hybels. These Evangelical newcomers have begun expressing sympathies for Palestinian suffering as part of their wider advocacy for the cause of “social justice,” though their knowledge base regarding the history and complexities of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict has been questioned.
Meanwhile, the more veteran Evangelical critics of Israel involved in the Checkpoint conference consisted mainly of native Palestinian Christian clergy with nationalistic motivations, along with a small group of Christian scholars from the West who have made a career out of maligning Israel and its Christian Zionist admirers.
Perhaps the most notable of these is Sizer, an Anglican vicar from the UK who defended the provocative Gaza flotilla in May 2010, welcomed the caustic comments against Jews by veteran AP White House correspondent Helen Thomas that led to her dismissal, and has even appeared at conferences alongside radical Islamists from Iran and Hezbollah who called for Israel’s elimination and denied the Holocaust.
Sizer reportedly agitated for the arrest on “war crimes” charges of Israeli leader Tzipi Livni during her visit to London, while protesting for the release from British custody of radical sheikh Ra’ad Saleh of the Islamic Movement in Israel.
Sizer once even went so far as to insist that Christian Zionists have “repudiated Jesus” by standing with Israel.
Given the list of speakers and their track records, the gathering was expected to promote a series of disturbing positions, which proved to be accurate.
Cloaked versions of Replacement theology
Not wanting to be identified with Replacement theology and its abysmal fruits down through Church history, many Checkpoint speakers now expound Fulfillment theology or other beliefs which deny national Israel its rightful place back in the land today.
They maintain that with the death and resurrection of Christ, all the Old Testament promises to natural Israel were fulfilled. Yet this teaching winds up in the same place as Replacement theology by insisting that Israel has already served its purpose and has now been superseded by the Church. They also assail Christian Zionist supporters of Israel.
In that vein, Dr. Manfred Kohl, formerly of World Vision, told this year’s Checkpoint gathering that “all the promises and prophesies were fulfilled in Jesus. Everything is done. The term Replacement theology is correct if by it we understand that Jesus the Messiah replaced the old covenant with its kingdom of Israel by the new covenant with the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven.”
“Holding on to the old covenant means not recognizing Jesus’s sacrifice," Kohl added. “His true people are a worldwide community. To jump from the divine encounter in Genesis 12 to the modern secular State of Israel is to nullify God's intervention through Jesus Christ... In Paul's Christology the land, like the Law, becomes irrelevant.”
Several speakers, such as Munther Isaac of Bethlehem Bible College, acknowledged the continuing validity of the Abrahamic covenant, but only so far as it applies to New Testament believers adopted as “sons of Abraham.”
“The prophets speak of a spiritual restoration of Israel but not a physical restoration,” Isaac claimed.
“Who shall inherit the land?” asked Burge, who teaches at Wheaton College. “Not the physical descendants of Abraham, but those whom Jesus called the meek.”
The Israel-equals apartheid analogy
In the past, many Checkpoint speakers smeared Israel with the apartheid label and even called for dismantling the Jewish state in favor of one binational state. The fact that the conference was timed to coincide with the Israel Apartheid Week global campaign only served to reinforce that distorted message. Yet this year’s conference saw a drop in apartheid rhetoric from the podium, although several sessions were set aside to reflect on the Kairos Palestine document, cowritten by conference organizer Yohanna Katanacho, which peddles the apartheid analogy as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions strategy.
Katanacho lauded Kairos Palestine for its blending of Liberation and Fulfillment theologies, its calls for reconciliation and its prophetic spirit – meaning the “naming of sins” being committed by Israel and especially Christian Zionists. He called it “a document of biblical love and justice” and a clear statement of the “theology of resistance.”
The ‘Palestinian Jesus’
Many Palestinian political and religious leaders, including the late Yasser Arafat, have falsely portrayed Jesus as a Palestinian revolutionary fighting Roman oppression, and described Palestinians today as the Body of Christ suffering under Israeli oppression. Even the very name of the conference, “Christ at the Checkpoint,” plays into this distorted narrative of a Palestinian Jesus. A number of conference speakers endorsed this twisting of the true Jewish identity of the historical figure of Jesus.
On the opening night, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad delivered a greeting in which he insisted: “What better place to be than in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. It’s an opportunity for you to see how it is for Palestinians to live under occupation... How can we, the Palestinian people, be invented when Jesus was born here 2000 years ago? Christians, Muslims and Samaritans have lived here together for centuries.”
Notably, just like PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations in September, Fayyad made no mention of the 4,000 year-old Jewish connection to the land.
The mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh, a Catholic member of the militant PFLP faction, went even further in his address the same evening.
“Welcome to the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” said Batarseh. “We as Palestinians are also crucified right now by the occupation, just like Jesus... Christ is stopped at the checkpoint together with every Palestinian stopped at the checkpoint… The Creator, Jesus Christ, is imprisoned within these walls.”
Local Arab Christian leader Sami Awad later tried to soften the rhetoric by saying, “We should try to see Jesus in every Palestinian at the checkpoint. But we should also try to see Jesus in the IDF soldier at the checkpoint who may not want to be there.”
One-sided Palestinian narrative
Several Checkpoint speakers repeatedly denounced Israeli “injustices” against the Palestinians while ignoring or falsifying the true course of events that led to Palestinian loss and displacement. Numerous conference speakers consistently downplayed Palestinian terrorism and other security threats to Israel, while also ignoring radical Islam as a primary source of Palestinian Christian grievances.
The conference’s use of the Israeli security “wall” and IDF checkpoints as symbols of their suffering, without reference to the Palestinian terrorism which produced it, was indicative of this one-sided historical narrative.
“Many speakers repeatedly railed against the settlements, uprooting trees, house demolitions, checkpoints, the occupation, while the word terrorism was largely missing,” said one Evangelical attendee.
“The checkpoints are there not for security but for humiliation,” decreed Munther Isaac. “The goal of the checkpoint is to destroy the soul and nerve.”
In arguably the most strident session, titled “Christian response to radical Islam,” Colin Chapman stated: “I can sympathize with their motives [of radical Islam], but I can neither condemn nor support their actions.
“Terrorism and suicide bombings are a response to Israel’s actions,” Chapman insisted. “If Israel had complied with famous UN Resolution 242 in 1967, Hamas might never have come into existence. And if Israel had not invaded Lebanon in 1982, there might be no Hezbollah today.”
Mixed reactions
Checkpoint 2012 closed by issuing a “manifesto” on behalf of the conference sponsors which asserted, among other things, that “any exclusive claim to land of the Bible in the name of God is not in line with the teaching of Scripture”; that “criticism of Israel and the occupation cannot be confused with anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of the State of Israel”; and that “Christians must understand the global context for the rise of extremist Islam.”
Afterward, Dr. Bishawa Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College, rigorously defended the conference.
“This is a biblical conference, to study what the Bible says about the land,” Awad told The Jerusalem Post. “Nothing at all has been mentioned about Replacement theology or the destruction of Israel. These are unfounded claims.”
“Many Christians support Israel whether it is right or wrong, but don’t look into the issues of peace and justice,” added Awad. “If that’s being political, then fine! But unfortunately, some people, instead of coming and listening and participating, just attack us. We want to have serious engagement with Zionist groups, and have open forum for ongoing dialogue. We may disagree, but that doesn’t mean we are enemies and hate each other. As Christians, we love and we are called by Jesus to love even enemies.”
In a post-conference statement touting the historic nature of the gathering, organizers added that they had “challenged the Evangelical community to cease looking at the Middle East through the lens of ‘end times’ prophecy and instead rallied them to join in following Jesus in the prophetic pursuance of justice, peace and reconciliation.”
“I count it a great honor to be a part of this gathering and this conversation, that could very well be a turning point for the history of this region,” concurred Shane Claiborne, a rising star among liberal Evangelicals.
Meanwhile, Christian media analyst Dexter van Zile of CAMERA assessed that the conference largely constituted an internal Christian debate on Christian Zionism as a theology with real world impacts.
“A number of Evangelicals simply do not want to be associated with eschatologies that they believe increase the prospect of violence in the Middle East,” he wrote on a Web blog. “They are also bothered by the possibility that Christian Zionism hinders their ability to evangelize to Muslims...”
Van Zile added that he was disturbed by the open talk of unsaved Jews not being entitled to the land and by the lack of any real effort to address Muslim anti-Semitism and the serious threats facing Israel.