Eight years ago, Lebanon-born Ali Elhajj, 35, came to faith in Christ while living in America. As he encountered evangelical culture, he became troubled by how deeply American Christians misunderstood Islam as well as Christianity in the Middle East.
"It really came to a head in 2006, when the Hezbollah-Israeli war happened, and there was a lot being talked about in the media and churches," Elhajj told Christianity Today during a recent interview. "I felt like I needed to do something. I needed to be that glue between the East and the West."
After the war, Elhajj, who has a Muslim background, visited Israel and the West Bank. He met Palestinian Christians Salim Munayer, a Fuller Seminary grad and full-time instructor at Bethlehem Bible College (BBC), and Bishara Awad, president of BBC. Munayer and Awad are part of an influential nucleus of Palestinian evangelicals who are committed to Christian outreach and reconciliation across the countless political and religious boundaries in the region.
Mixing in Americans
In the past 20 years, ongoing conflict has sharply limited interactions between Israelis and Palestinians. Border crossings have rarely been more difficult. In 1990, Munayer and local congregational leaders formed Musalaha (an Arabic word for reconciliation) to create a new context for interaction: desert encounters in which Israelis and Palestinians spend a week or more traveling by camel through desolate areas. From these intense journeys, new, healthier relationships emerge. Musalaha has received worldwide acclaim for its breakthrough efforts.
After talking with Munayer, Awad, and others, Elhajj dreamed of finding a way to partner with them. One day, he asked his wife, Jennifer, "Wouldn't it be great to include Americans in this mix?" After much discussion, in 2007 the couple launched the fledgling Bethlehem Christmas Project from their dining room table in Weston, Florida. The idea was to invite Americans to travel to Bethlehem in early December to help local believers distribute Christmas gifts to needy families regardless of religion. Ali and his wife established a nonprofit corporation, started networking with interested leaders, and began finding financial supporters to underwrite their outreach.
One ready supporter was businessman Chuck Wenger from Prairie Ridge Church in Ankeny, Iowa. Wenger visits Israel frequently and now serves on Elhajj's board. "Too many Jews and Muslims believe in a principle of revenge and they practice it," Wenger says. "I see only the church bringing a strategy of peace, love, and reconciliation."
During the 2007 Christmas season, a small team of Palestinian, Israeli, and American believers handed out gifts to 200 children in Bethlehem. As it turned out, the greatest needs were at an orphanage and schools for children with disabilities. The gifts themselves were mostly clothes, educational toys, and basics for school and home, not the latest electronic gadgets.
Israeli volunteer Alex Voitenko, who participated in the gift distribution, first had to overcome the suspicion he felt toward Elhajj because he was an Arab. But now, Voitenko describes Elhajj as "an angel." He said, "This war [has] already continued a long time—for generations. I don't see any solution without Christ."
Elhajj told CT, "We have this body of Christ that is not hostile to one another, not so concerned about who gets what in terms of land and resources. We are all working toward peace."
Transcending Old Hatreds
That point of view is a long way from the outlook Elhajj had as a child growing up in Lebanon's West Beirut during the 1980s. Elhajj recalled perceptions among his family and friends who said, "Israel is not your friend—you don't say the word Israel. You say Palestine. You don't interact with Israelis."