Update (March 12): Evangelical leaders of this week's Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference defended their four-day event against a chorus of critics who allege the gathering has an anti-Israel political agenda.
About 700 people are in Bethlehem to take part in the third CATC, which addresses the role of Christian peacemaking in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Before the event opened, Israel Today, a media outlet, queried Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) regarding its perspective on the event. Yigal Palmor, MFA chief press aide, said in a statement, "Using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy." [Full text]
This prompted CATC leaders to deny the authenticity of the statement, which Israel Today editors later defended.
Earlier today, CATC delegates and speakers met privately with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. MFA officials told these leaders that Palmor's comments were genuine, but they said "he spoke in a personal capacity."
"We were saddened by the comments of Mr. Palmor," Munther Isaac, assistant dean at Bethlehem Bible College and CATC director, said in email remarks to CT. "It is unfortunate that an Israeli official would consider a conference that aims to provide a platform for international and local evangelical leaders and theologians to discuss the Palestinian Israeli conflict as 'political propaganda.'
"The conference manifesto makes it clear that we are committed to the kingdom of God and the values of the kingdom of God. It also underlines our commitment to peacemaking and reconciliation and our rejection of violence.
"At the same time, we are Palestinian evangelicals, and we believe that we have a perspective that needs to be heard. The comments of Mr. Palmor seem as an attempt to silence us and to intimidate evangelicals from engaging with us and listening to our perspective."
[Editor's note: Israel Today released this statement to CT on Thurs., March 13: "It is unfortunate that Christ at the Checkpoint has chosen to view Mr. Palmor's statement as 'unofficial' and, by implication, unimportant. It is a little silly to think an official spokesman can issue a personal remark in this context when speaking to a member of the press unless he or she explicitly labels the remark as personal. And, the fact is, that the text Mr. Palmor sent us was explicitly labeled as an 'official response.' Unless someone who outranks Mr. Palmor has downgraded his statement, it still stands as an official response. So far, CatC has failed to provide the name of who they spoke with at the MFA."]
The conference is occurring during fresh turmoil in the Middle East. Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike along the Gaza-Israel border killed three armed Palestinians who had been firing on Israeli soldiers. Then this afternoon [March 12], more than 30 rockets were launched from inside Gaza across the border into southern Israel. Israel responded with artillery fire. This was the largest cross-border exchange since November 2012.
Other critics of CATC are coming from within Israel's Messianic Jewish community (see below) as well as outside groups, such as NGO Monitor and its BDS in the Pews program, which issued a seven-page analysis associating CATC with the so-called Boycott-Divest-Sanction movement (BDS). The report claims, "CATC seeks to advance the Palestinian nationalist agenda within evangelical Christian churches, while simultaneously reviving theological anti-Semitic themes such as replacement theology."
CATC leaders say they reject allegations of anti-Semitism. Jack Sara, president of Bethlehem Bible College, said in a preconference video that the purpose of the CATC conference is to address the questions, "Where is God in all of this? How would Christ deal [with issues] on both sides of the checkpoint? Part of it is bringing hope to the Palestinians here and the church here. The voice of the church does not get heard. We are about reconciliation and God's peace."
The conference ends on March 14.
[Originally published on March 10, 11:01 a.m., entitled: Israel Blasts Global Evangelical Event in Bethlehem as 'Shameful' | Christ at the Checkpoint focuses on just peace in Israel-Palestine conflict.]
Israel has described a gathering of global evangelical leaders that opens today at Bethlehem Bible College as "unacceptable and shameful" for its intent to manipulate religious sentiment for political purposes.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement, issued to Israel Today—an Israel-based news agency with a mostly Christian readership and pro-Israel stance—was critical of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference, which runs from March 10-14 (livestreamed here) and now meeting for the third time since 2010.
The Sunday [March 9] statement reads:
The attempt to use religious motifs in order to mobilize political propaganda and agitate the feelings of the faithful through the manipulation of religion and politics is an unacceptable and shameful act. Using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy.
According to comments made by the unnamed MFA official, the Israeli government considers some of those involved in Christ at the Checkpoint to be hostile to the state of Israel's existence.
"We have already actively targeted specific participants in the conference, as well as leaders of the groups who will attend the event, in a coordinated effort to expose them to our side of the story," the MFA told Israel Today. Concerns include possible connections to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
However, the posted schedule for Christ at the Checkpoint includes several leaders who come from a cross-section of the Christian community and don't represent a sole point of view on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the two-state solution proposal, or the peace process.
"The people I know who are attending represent diverse points of view," Dale Hanson Bourke, author of The Israeli-Palestine Conflict, told CT. "Many are very supportive of Israel and my understanding is that the conference is a place for discussion and debate, not propaganda or manipulation."
The pre-event news statement shares this information:
More than 25 speakers from Israel/Palestine and abroad will share at the conference, including Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance, and Joseph Cumming, who previously served as the director of the Yale University Divinity School's Reconciliation Program. Messianic Jewish leaders Evan Thomas and Daniel Juster will be present, along with Holy Land Trust director Sami Awad, Palestinian Bible Society director Nashat Filmon, and Bethlehem Bible College president Jack Sara.
As conflict and bloodshed spread hatred and animosity in the Holy Land, Christ's call for Christians to be peacemakers who stand lovingly against injustice is needed more than ever. In Sami Awad's words: "Peace is not just negotiated agreements between politicians. Peace is the process of building trust and respect between the peoples of the land. To be able to see each other with new eyes. To be able to really understand who the 'other' is... Trust and respect are the foundations."
Other speakers include: Ruth Padilla DeBorst, director of Christian Formation and Leadership Development with World Vision International; Bob Roberts, founder and senior pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, Texas; and William M. Wilson, president of Oral Roberts University.
One speaker, Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, told CT by email today from Bethlehem, "The statement by the MFA concerning the checkpoint conference is tragic on so many levels: it is ill-informed — "political propaganda" is an absurd comment — and the statement itself is an incitement. This is simply the only gathering of Palestinian Christians in the world who are trying to have their voices heard by their brothers and sisters in Christ. I'm at the event. It is packed. And it is a moving testimony to these Christians' faithfulness to Christ amidst dreadful circumstances. Israeli bureaucrats simply want those voices silenced.
"I think that the Israeli government is worried about this gathering because every year evangelicals are growing in their understanding of this conflict and questioning the standard Israeli narrative of things."
Previous Christ at the Checkpoint events have been accompanied by controversy. The involvement of Lynne Hybels, author of Nice Girls Don't Change the World and whose husband Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church, has drawn significant criticism after she spoke at previous events. Hybels will not be attending the event this year.
Lynne Hybels, in 2011, addressed her critics, saying:
I believe followers of Jesus ought be outspoken in their support of peace and safety for all Jews, and the right of Israeli civilians to live without being subjected to rocket fire and suicide attacks. At the same time, I wholeheartedly support justice for the Palestinians. In 2008, at a conference in Amman, Jordan, Arab Christians challenged me to broaden my understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict, to listen to the stories of Palestinian Arabs forced from their homes and villages during the founding of the State of Israel, and to see for myself the current plight of Palestinian Christians and Muslims living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank. Since then, I have made repeated trips to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Messianic Israeli leader, Dan Juster, a scheduled speaker (click here for the full list of the 2014 scheduled speakers), has written a statement to Palestinian Christians calling them to speak out against Muslim repression of religious freedom.
...they emphasize suffering under Israel and not under the rule of the Arab Muslims. Maybe this is so they can address one injustice realm without being killed.
Juster is calling on Messianic believers to write a statement that addresses injustice in Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas, but also notes that inside Israel, "There are more human rights here than in any other [Mideast] country (west of the green line)."
The Telos Group, which recently advocated in a Washington Post op-ed that evangelicals take up a "pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-American, and pro-peace" position, highlighted The Jewish Week's assessment of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference and whether Jews should be worried at the younger generation of evangelicals.
A group of Messianic believers has started an online petition critical of Christ at the Checkpoint. The petition says in part: "Anti-Israel politics and political correctness have emerged as focal points of this conference, to which end the state of Israel and the Jewish people have been singled out for constant and severe criticism. The conference sponsors retain connections to pro-jihadist movements or persons, whose political stances threaten the entire Middle East."
CT news will update this article as events develop.
[Photo courtesy of Andrew Larsen - Flickr]