Changing Minds at the Checkpoint

To be a Christian in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa today is to accept the very real possibility of a violent death. Consider the deadly assaults on Christians just in the last few days. Jihadists who go by the name Boko Haram (‘Western education is forbidden’) attacked and killed 59 students, many of them sleeping at the time, in a boarding school in north-east Nigeria. A number of the students at the boarding school undoubtedly would have been Christians. After blocking the exits, the jihadists set the dormitory on fire. Those young men who tried to escape were shot or had their throats slit. The next day, Boko Haram launched a three-pronged attack on three more schools, one of which was a Christian theological school, killing another 37 students. In the last month alone, over 200 people in Nigeria have died at the hands of jihadists. Boko Haram has demanded that all Christians in north and central Nigeria move south so they can establish a pure Islamic society in the north. To rid their territory of Christians, Boko Haram not only attacks schools but uses bombings and drive-by shootings as well.

In Libya, the bodies of seven Egyptian Christians were found on a beach in the eastern part of the country. Gunshots to the back of the head indicate that the victims were killed execution-style.

In the city of Raqqa in Syria, minorities i.e. Christians have been informed by opposition forces who have taken control of their city–members of the dreaded Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)–that they are now subject to sharia law. Christians must pay the jizya or tax to ISIS; they must worship privately; they may not build or renovate their churches, or display the cross. Failure to comply can result in death.

It’s a perilous time for Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. Of those who are able to flee, many are doing so. No country illustrates this exodus of Christians more than Iraq. In the 1990s, the Christian community in Iraq numbered 1.2 million. Today, that number has dwindled to around 200,000. Inadvertently making their situation only worse, many fleeing Iraqis chose neighbouring Syria as their destination. Israel, on the other hand, in stark contrast to its Muslim neighbours, has a small but thriving Christian community that is actually growing in numbers.

In ten days’ time, evangelical Christian leaders, academics, and delegates from around the world are scheduled to assemble at the Intercontinental Hotel in Bethlehem in the Westbank to address the problem of Israeli checkpoints in the lives of the Palestinian Christians. That’s right: Not abductions, assaults, or murder. Checkpoints! A ‘Christ-at-the-Checkpoint Conference (CaTC)’ is set for March 10-14. This is the third so-named conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational Christian college located in the Westbank. The theme of this year’s conference is, “Your Kingdom Come.” Organizers want the international community to come and see for themselves the situation of Palestinian Christians. They hope this year’s conference will “challenge evangelicals to take responsibility to help resolve the conflicts in Israel-Palestine by engaging with the teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God.” Delegates are invited to come and study Scripture in the shadow of the checkpoints, to hear what God would tell them about the situation there, and then to determine “what Jesus Christ would do and say if he walked through a checkpoint on a daily basis and determine how he would deal with feelings of anger and bitterness caused by the checkpoints.”

At a time when Christians are facing brutal persecution as never before throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa, why an international conference focused specifically on Palestinian Christians? My response would be that, despite the theological language and talk of reconciliation, the conference has an unstated political goal which is to erode evangelical Christian support for the Jewish state. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, evangelical Christians have been the Jewish state’s most ardent supporters. Conference organizers would like to change that.

Looking at the roster of keynote speakers for the upcoming CaTC conference, I see that Professor Gary Burge, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School is a guest speaker for the third time. Burge, in addition to being an academic and author, is an ordained Presbyterian minister and founder of the organization Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (EMEU), an affiliation of North American churches and agencies which support Arab churches in the Middle East (and demonizes Israel, say critics).

I’ve read one of Burge’s books, Whose Land? Whose Promise? What Christians Are Not Being Told about Israel and the Palestinians (2003). In his book, Burge states that Israel’s right to the land is linked to covenant righteousness. A feature of that righteousness has to do with the way Israel treats its resident aliens or foreigners. By resident aliens, Burge means Palestinian Arabs. Burge argues that Israel has failed the covenantal test by mistreating the Palestinian Arabs, thus putting Israel’s inheritance i.e. ownership of the land in jeopardy. “If Israel makes a biblical claim to the land, Israel must necessarily also live a biblical life…,” writes Burge. “Israel is committing the sin of Ahab [stealing land and committing bloodshed],” Burge asserts. (I personally found Burge’s comparing modern Israel’s actions with those of ancient Israel’s most evil king a repugnant analogy.)

In his book, Burge details what he perceives to be Israel’s crimes at great length, yet makes no mention of Palestinian bad behaviour. He talks about the need for justice for both parties, and then lays all the blame on Israel. He doesn’t much care for Christian Zionists, either. He is “offended by those people whose faith is consumed by the politics of Israel’s restoration” (296). In short, I found Burge’s book to be the most one-sided, biased discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I have ever encountered. And seeing Burge’s name yet again on the roster of speakers, the third time in a row, has definitely influenced the way I look at CaTC conferences.

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