I’ll never tire of the hills around the Sea of Galilee.
The Christian New Testament says that Jesus would often sneak away to pray there. It’s clear why. There’s almost no place on the planet more serene.
On my visits through the years, I’ve often stayed at a quiet inn perched atop one of Galilee’s hills. Each morning, the birds instinctively sing their early songs to God as the clouds begin to break in the valley below.
Soon the day’s first view of the Sea of Galilee emerges down below — the sea where Jesus walked on water, the sea where he reconciled with Peter after his resurrection, and the sea where millions of Christians travel each year to reconnect with their faith.
One of the great gifts of the State of Israel to Christians around the world is the preservation of Christianity’s holiest places: from the quiet of Israel’s north to the bustle of Jerusalem and everything in between.
A young Israel, fresh from the tragedy of the Holocaust, could have chosen to monopolize for themselves every square inch of their land. Israel could also have taken vengeance on Christians for centuries of antisemitism. Instead, from the very beginning, Israel’s democratic values demanded that the miracle of their reconstituted nation would be a welcome place for people of all faiths.
This is also a miracle in the Middle East.
Israel would not treat others the way Jews had been treated in countries all around the world. In Israel, every sincere worshipper of God would find freedom to do so — however they pleased.
This commitment continued to Jerusalem’s Old City when Israel took control after the Six Day War. Under Jordanian control the city had been open to Muslims and Christians but it had been closed to Jews. Israel didn’t reciprocate. It just allowed Jews to worship like everyone else. Today, Jordan and Israel collaborate to keep the sites open to all.
Modern Israel has emerged at a moment in the Middle East when the persecution of minorities has been particularly severe, often beginning with Jews and Christians. Over the next two generations, the Christians living in the neighboring countries would one-by-one face an exponential threat to their existence at one point.
Not in Israel. From the very beginning: Christians could visit, Christians could worship and Christians could live free from fear and discrimination. Otherwise, millions of Christians would be forced to flee the Middle East altogether or stay to face varying forms of discrimination and extending, in some circumstances, to even imprisonment or death.
Never in Israel.
Israel’s democracy — committed to religious freedom — has remained a refuge for Christians in a region that has at times been rife with relenting threats.
Instead of wondering about their safety, Christians have been able to take pilgrimages to countless religious sites in every corner of Israeli territory. In fact, Israel hasn’t just preserved those sites but the country has invested in them, modernized them, and given them as a blessing to Christian communities all around the world, from Ghana to China, from Brazil to India.
There are many gifts Israel has given to the world but there’s no gift greater to Christianity than ensuring that the State of Israel has always been an island of religious coexistence in a turbulent region.
They haven’t been alone — just ask the Christians in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates who’ve long enjoyed a special peace themselves from the largesse of their nations’ tolerant, smart and strong leaders— but Israel is also different. Israel achieved and maintained its religious tolerance while fighting virtually every day for multiple generations just to survive.
Israel is God’s gift to Christians in the Middle East. I dare not imagine what Christianity in the Middle East would look like today without beautiful Israel.
Rev. Johnnie Moore is president of the Congress of Christian Leaders.