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Palestinian Evangelicals Call Western Church to Repentance, Criticized in Return

Middle East Christians assert their rejection of violence as they relate frustration with lack of Western recognition of the reality of occupation and the collateral damage of bombing campaigns.
Palestinian Evangelicals Call Western Church to Repentance, Criticized in Return
Image: Ali Jadallah / Anadolu / Getty Images
Search and rescue efforts in the historical Greek Orthodox Saint Porphyrius Church after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza.

Since the outbreak of war after unprecedented terror attacks on Israel by Hamas, Middle Eastern churches, councils, and leaders have expressed their outrage over the killing of thousands of innocent civilians.

Many Arab Christian groups have issued public statements. Most emphasized the Christian call to be peacemakers. Several have been criticized for what some see as calls not specifically addressing the suffering of civilian Jews targeted for death by terrorists.

Originating from Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon—with most prompted by the tragic bombing of the Anglican hospital in Gaza—the public statements range in focus and intensity. Some assert the international community overlooks the context of occupation by the Israeli state; others remind the global church of the continued Christian presence in the land.

CT studied texts from nine Arab and four Western organizations, most of evangelical conviction, and queried the perspective of an Israeli Messianic Jew and a Lebanese Armenian evangelical. The review found that few Middle Eastern statements have named Hamas as the perpetrator of terrorism, while many specifically criticize Israel itself.

One of the most recent statements is from Musalaha, which names both.

The Jerusalem-based reconciliation ministry works with Israelis and Palestinians from diverse religious backgrounds using biblical principles to engage the issues that divide them in pursuit of peace. After two weeks painfully watching the widespread carnage, its public statement centered on “lament” and called for a reconciling response.

“We lament people who, in the name of justice, have allowed rage to perpetuate the cycle of dehumanization and excuse bloodshed; as seen with Hamas’ attacks and the Israeli army’s response,” stated Musalaha. “We invite both Palestinians and Israelis to see the dignity and humanity of the other by non-violently co-resisting together for a better future.”

The region’s most representative Christian body, however, was bluntly specific about the suffering it asserts the Jewish nation-state is imposing on Gaza.

“What the Palestinian people are exposed to in Gaza is not a military reaction to a military action,” stated the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), “but rather a genocide and ethnic cleansing, targeting the detainees of the largest prison in human history—and with premeditation.”

Its statement, the starkest of the nine Arab ones surveyed, called the war a “war of extermination,” and called for “all honorable people” to intervene.

Michel Abs, secretary general of the MECC, told CT he recognized that what he calls “the Zionist entity” was attacked and responded—and that it should have stopped there.

The MECC focused on denouncing Israel for cutting off water in the densely populated coastal strip, the destruction of medical infrastructure, and the collateral deaths of defenseless citizens. It called to stop the aggression, to lift the siege of Gaza, and to hold what Abs called “the occupying forces” accountable.

Member churches in the MECC include Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations—most of which are called “Evangelical,” per local usage. Yet while “mainline” differences known in the American Christian landscape are not as distinct in the Arab world, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) incorporates bodies not represented in the MECC.

“We are generally in agreement [with the MECC statement], without necessarily adhering to each word,” said Paul Haidostian, acting president of the Union of Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East, a reformed church of pietistic expression and not a WEA affiliate. “But are there elements of extermination in the current war? I would think yes.”

Jack Sara, general secretary of the regional Middle East and North Africa evangelical alliance, helped craft the official WEA response to the “Holy Land conflict.” But he agreed with the MECC statement as well.

“With thousands of Palestinians dying nonstop, it clearly describes the facts on the ground,” he said. “If anything, it falls short in beseeching the world to intervene.”

Analysts have noted that Hamas embeds itself in civilian areas, and that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) often issues warnings before striking residential structures. In preparation of an anticipated ground invasion, the IDF called on noncombatants to evacuate northern Gaza; Hamas told them to remain in place.

The United Nations, however, has stated that Gaza already represents a humanitarian catastrophe with more than 6,500 killed and a million displaced as of October 26, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry. Responding to Hamas terrorism and the deaths of 1,400 citizens, mostly civilians, Israel’s dilemma is stark, as the urban warfare necessary to pursue terrorist leaders in Gaza will further deteriorate local conditions and increasingly inflame much global opinion.

But watching many in the United States and wider evangelical world rally behind Israel, Sara’s Bethlehem Bible College (BBC) cosigned a Palestinian Christian statement of significant rebuke, calling “Western church leaders and theologians” to repent.

It opened by quoting the prophet Isaiah: Learn to do right; seek justice; defend the oppressed (1:17).

“Western attitudes towards Palestine–Israel suffer from a glaring double standard that humanizes Israeli Jews while insisting on dehumanizing Palestinians and whitewashing their suffering,” it stated. “With a broken heart, we hold [such leaders] accountable for their theological and political complicity.”

While grieving the “renewed cycle of violence” and condemning “all attacks on civilians,” it chided the failure of Christian leaders to mention the “wider context and root causes” of the war—including ongoing occupation and 17 years of the Gaza blockade. And three-quarters of the local population, it reminded, is descended from Palestinians displaced in the conflict that followed the 1948 establishment of Israel, which denies their proclaimed right of return.

Sara complained that in the months prior to the war, extremist Jews and Israeli settlers increased attacks on local churches, spitting at priests while international Christians said little. Believers, he said, often feel that they are a “nuisance” to Western proponents of End Times theology, or else of their government’s narrative on the region.

“We are praying that the church would be the church, and not a political body that takes sides,” said Sara in a YouTube message. “It is no longer the ethnic background that matters to God—Jesus is no longer only a Jew, he is everything to everyone.”

One Messianic Jewish leader called the joint statement “reprehensible.”

Not only did the Palestinian Christians fail to denounce or mention Hamas or terrorism, stated Michael Brown, host of the nationally syndicated Line of Fire radio program, their statement repeated “libelous claims” that Israel intentionally bombed al-Ahli Arab hospital on October 17 as well as St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church on October 19. (The IDF determined the hospital deaths were caused by a misfired rocket from Islamic Jihad militants, while acknowledging the church deaths were caused by one of its missiles targeted at a nearby building.)

Furthermore, Brown critiqued the statement for engaging in “standard leftwing tropes” that equate settler colonialism with the return of Jews to their ancient homeland.

“We want to show solidarity as brothers and sisters in Jesus,” said Brown, who has participated in BBC’s Christ at the Checkpoint conferences. “[But] repent of this deeply flawed call to repentance so that together, we can pursue righteousness, goodness, equity, and mercy.”

The president of the Evangelical Alliance of Israel compared signatories to a battered wife.

“Most Middle Eastern Christians are not at liberty to speak out and condemn Islamist violence,” said Danny Kopp. “The social, and often physical, cost is just too high to contemplate.”

Instead, they stay silent, deflect, or blame others. Traumatic abuse distorts the capacity for sound moral judgment, he said. But having witnessed the “worst mass murder of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust,” Arab believers are at a critical inflection point.

“At just the moment when Christians could have offered a rare ray of light of truth,” Kopp said, “the church has largely relegated itself to a state of moral decay and irrelevance.”

Egyptian evangelicals—however evaluated—spoke out from the beginning.

The Presidency of the Protestant Churches of Egypt (PCE), a member of both the MECC and WEA, was one of the first regional bodies to issue a statement. Only one day after the Hamas massacre on October 7, it issued a nonspecific condemnation of “all forms of violence and armed conflict between Palestinians and Israelis,” noting the attacks on innocent civilians.

A second statement, the PCE said, backed Egyptian government policy to supply humanitarian aid. But three statements next followed in quick succession, shifting the focus to Israeli abuses. The PCE condemned the bombing of the Gaza hospital, then rejected handling the Palestinian case with military tools. And following the attack that partially destroyed the Gaza church, it expressed “deep concern about the violence directed at residential areas, since the very beginning of the outbreak of events.”

Egypt was the first Arab nation to make a peace treaty with Israel. Israel’s criticism elsewhere may have led to a shift in certain statements.

What incensed many Arab Christians was that the hospital bombing took place on a day that the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem (PHCJ) called to devote for fasting and prayer. And two days prior, in response to Israel’s call to evacuate the north of Gaza, the PHCJ reflected an awareness of Jewish anger as it warned against a “new cycle of violence” that began “with an unjustifiable attack against civilians in Israel.”

The Jerusalem Christian leaders still did not denounce or mention Hamas, but this statement varied the language from their first reaction the day of the terrorist atrocities. With Israel still reeling from the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, the PHCJ had advocated against any harm to “both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”

Israel’s envoy to the Vatican was outraged by the “immoral linguistic ambiguity.”

Do Jordan’s evangelicals merit the same reply?

On October 14, the Jordanian Evangelical Alliance (JEC), a member of the WEA but not the MECC, issued a statement to endorse the PHCJ invitation to prayer. But reflecting the will of its five-church constituency, the JEC general assembly voted to avoid specific mention of either Israel or Hamas.

A strong minority wanted to name Israel.

Hamas, said Nabeeh Abbassi, president of the Jordanian Baptist Convention, a JEC member denomination, is viewed as a “liberator” by many Palestinians in Jordan, who make up a significant but contested percentage of the kingdom’s population. Wishing not to be viewed as against this sentiment, the evangelical alliance chose to “not go into politics” and instead focus on a common humanity.

The JEC statement condemned the current “cycle of violence and counterviolence,” though it specified “aggression against the Palestinian people.” Nonetheless, the Sermon of the Mount calls believers be peacemakers, with dialogue and negotiation the necessary means to end an ongoing but unnamed Israeli policy of settlement expansion.

“Violence begets violence,” the JEC stated, “occupation creates resistance, and siege results in explosion.”

This sentence is explanation, Abbassi explained, not justification.

“The one who started the trouble is Hamas,” he continued. “Israel has the right to defend itself. But then did much worse.”

Abbassi believes too many Western Christians support Israel from a faulty application of theology. A dispensationalist himself, the Jordanian pastor said that it is not the job of believers to hurry along God’s eschatological timetable.

He referenced Acts 1:6–8, in which the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus if he would then restore the kingdom to Israel. Abbassi pointed to Jesus’ refusal to answer the question, instead calling the believers to be his witnesses.

“If we want to help God, this is what we should do,” Abbassi said. “Not to take sides, but to love both, and share the gospel with all.”

But following what he said was a “brutal raid” on the Anglican hospital, Abbassi said his convention felt compelled to issue a statement of its own, and was later grieved by the strike at the Greek Orthodox church. It blamed an Israeli “war machine” policy that targets Muslims and Christians alike, without differentiating between civilians and military personnel.

“Hamas is a group, Israel is a state,” Abbassi said. “Hamas is expected to do anything, but I expect Israel to do the right thing.”

The Jordanian denominational statement, he said, came from a rare moment of local appreciation. Nearly all Jordanian media called the Gaza hospital “Baptist,” reflecting the popular sentiment established during its administrative identity in the 1967 war.

It was a moment to “show our heart” to the average Jordanian—Abbassi gave three TV interviews after the wake—as well as local Christian agreement with a government policy that defends Palestinian rights while maintaining peace with Israel, with King Abdullah’s Hashemite kingdom as the historic custodian of Muslim and Christian religious sites in Jerusalem.

Lebanese evangelicals had varying objectives.

“Some wanted a statement to show the government, some to show the Muslims,” said Joseph Kassab, president of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Community in Syria and Lebanon. “But I wanted it simply to reflect our faith and theology.”

Encouraged by several local leaders to speak out after the hospital explosion, the Lebanese document referenced the “eye for eye” ethic repudiated by Jesus but present, Kassab said, among Jews and Muslims. According to such logic, the statement argued, Hamas’s terrorism might merit equal response, but not double. However Israel, he said, has upped it ten times in scale.

While deterrence through disproportionate response is part of basic Israeli military strategy, Kassab believes Christians should have a different metric.

“You cannot work for peace and reconciliation,” he said, “and give your unconditional support to anyone.”

Instead, in seeking to focus on the need for a just solution for the overall Israeli–Palestinian conflict, the Lebanese statement did not name either Israel or Hamas as adversaries.

What if Iran enters the war, Kassab said, or the United States?

Speculating the “sad and unfortunate” actions of Hamas were meant to disrupt the recent pattern of Arab normalization efforts with Israel—known as the Abraham Accords—Kassab stated clearly that neither Palestine nor the region has a future if Islamist ideology succeeds to rule.

Israel, however, has multiplied atrocities, he said. Kassab mentioned the thousands of Gazan apartment buildings destroyed, and the call for refugees—later revised—to “get out” and flee through the strip’s southern border to Egypt. Previous displacements of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967 have become permanent.

Even so, he said the MECC statement is not fully warranted.

“It might not be the intention of Israel to exterminate, but if they continue to act this way it will lead to that end,” said Kassab. “If you don’t like the word, substitute another—but this will not change the scale of violence.”

Munir Kakish, president of the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land (CLEC), a WEA affiliate, distanced himself from the MECC statement altogether.

“When we are invited to their meetings,” he said, “then I can put in an opinion.”

Emphasizing the calling to be a bridge of peace and reconciliation, his October 18 statement was non-specific in all directions. While focused on Gaza alone, it mentioned neither Hamas nor Israel and called for immediate humanitarian aid and a comprehensive peace treaty.

“What happened to hospitals and schools in Gaza is unacceptable by all international laws and customs,” stated the council, which then echoed 1 Timothy 2:2. “We appeal to all parties for an immediate cessation of the war … so that we may live a peaceful life in all piety and dignity.”

But also to preach the gospel. Kakish saw current events as part of the “wars and rumors of wars” that Jesus predicted before the end times. Evil is increasing, he said, as in the times of Noah—and the ark door will soon be shut.

“It is time for the church to wake up and fulfill the great commission,” he said, “instead of being distracted by other things.”

But Arab Christians are not the only ones to make statements.

Unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the US, and the WEA promptly condemned Hamas by name.

The ERLC issued the strongest pro-Israel pronouncement.

Recognizing varying theological positions on the relation between Israel and the church, the Southern Baptist–led statement recognized how the Jewish people have “long endured genocidal attempts to eradicate them and to destroy [their] state.” Citing Israel as a “rare example of democracy” in the region, the ERLC referenced Romans 13 in support for the Israeli government to “bear the sword” against acts of evil toward innocent life.

Furthermore, the ERLC statement recognized the “dignity and personhood of all persons living in the Middle East, and prayed for the “difficult ministry of Jewish and Palestinian believers who labor for the gospel.”

[Editor’s note: CT editor-in-chief Russell Moore, a former ERLC president, signed the statement alongside 2,000 other leaders.]

Counterparts in the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) focused on Palestine, noting the al-Ahli hospital’s Southern Baptist heritage as it “plead[s] for the protection of all citizens and the establishment of genuine peace.”

Counting 17 Baptist churches in Israel and 13 in the Palestinian Territories—including one in Gaza—the BWA called for “paths of peacemaking that unequivocally reject terrorism.” And “in the midst of complexity” it urged the “pursuit of restorative justice and peace.”

General secretary Elijah Brown offered the BWA prayer guide as an example.

“Believing that as ambassadors of peace we are not to emphasize approaches of political antagonism,” he told CT, “we must work to model a shared voice of common engagement.”

The NAE also recognized Israel’s right to defend itself. But it also warned Israel about undermining its own security by going beyond this to “take revenge” and inflict further suffering on innocent civilians. The WEA expressed “bewilderment” at demonstrations that appeared to rejoice over the initial killings, while encouraging all efforts to deescalate violence.

Both called for a just peace—a phrase not used by the ERLC—but neither have issued an evaluative statement since then. Given the NAE’s reiteration of the evangelical role to “constructively critique government leaders,” is it required now?

“The doctrine of just war, by its very nature, has a framework with limits on how war may be waged, including a prohibition on targeting innocent civilians,” ERLC president Brent Leatherwood told CT. “Our concern for the vulnerable has no borders, but we must remain clear-eyed about who is at fault in this conflict.”

NAE president Walter Kim also cited Christian tradition.

“Most evangelicals look to classic just-war principles in pursuing justice while restraining violence. Israel has the right to defend itself against Hamas, which continues its attack,” he said. “Other just war principles include just intent, limited retribution, long-term peacemaking, and protection of innocents.”

He left evaluation for the reader to decide.

Thomas Schirrmacher, general secretary of the WEA, already has.

“Israel is still in the parameter of self-defense,” he said. “As those attacking clearly state, they want to kill all Jews and wipe Israel off the map.”

Raising strong doubts about Israel’s culpability for the hospital bombing, Schirrmacher blamed Palestinian leaders—in the West Bank, governed by the Palestinian Authority, as well as in Hamas-controlled Gaza—for failing to build a functioning state. With Hamas committed to terrorism, in Gaza the two are mutually exclusive.

He emphasized, however, that all comments are offered in his personal capacity. The WEA represents national alliances and partnerships in 173 countries, including the ones led by Kakish, Kopp, and a second affiliate focused on Arab citizens of Israel.

The regional Middle East and North Africa alliance is at odds with the WEA’s regional European alliance over the specifics of an antisemitism definition, he said, while an alliance in Azerbaijan is pinched by WEA condemnation of the Caucasus nation’s human rights abuses against Armenians in a contested enclave.

He also tries to balance between fellow believers in Ukraine and Russia.

Balanced also is the aid provided. The WEA is working through its alliance in Israel to provide shelters in Ashdod and Ashkelon near the Gaza border. Partnering with the affiliated Synod of the Nile in Egypt, relief will be given at the crossing in Rafah. And with its Palestinian alliance, cash support is being provided to rebuild the Anglican hospital in Gaza.

“Before we speak, we engage all sides,” Schirrmacher said. “It means we are slow, but better able to contribute toward peace and positive change than quickly issuing a statement that would later have to be revised.”

“Statement-making is not the most critical task of the church,” said Haidostian, whose Armenian evangelical union has not commented officially on the war. “More important is the task of educating about peace, justice, and historical grievances, not only current affairs.”

But Arab Christians make them, he said, from concern in two directions.

First, he said, they appeal to a relationship of trust with international partners in the West, to counter “the unbalanced and unconditionally favorable” view of Israel often conveyed by the mainstream media.

And second, to show the region that they are not simple bystanders. Haidostian agreed that they may face local pressure from Muslims or Jews, adding that they often feel an existential hopelessness at the dwindling state of the Christian community.

But their statements assert that they, like Palestinians, are not illegitimate children of the land, nor foreign to it.

“Arab Christians are often victims too,” Haidostian said. “To blame them for partiality is simplistic.”

And though he has a strong opinion about this current conflict, the Armenian leader urged Christians not to view the region as a monolith. Believers should be careful not to conflate biblical Israel with the modern state, he said, nor allow government and media rhetoric to shape their faith commitments.

What does Christ desire of us now? he asked. Inasmuch as the Holy Land is the cradle of Christian faith, in John 17 Jesus made clear his desire stretches far beyond.

“Peace in any part of the world depends upon peace elsewhere,” Haidostian said. “And the vibrancy of the church in Middle East is critical to the global unity of the body of Christ.”

Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber. This article is also available in Turkish.

[ This article is also available in español Português العربية Français 简体中文 繁體中文, and Türkçe. ]

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