by Wissam al-Saliby*
In my May blog post on the generalized regression of human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, I concluded by promising a follow up blog post on what role the global Church can play to counter this regression. Last week, I began a reflection on how churches that feel called to serve the Middle East can play a role – rather than what role to play. In today’s installment of my post, I will discuss the importance of listening, visiting and learning in relation to Israel and Palestine – an enduring conflict and a pivotal region.
In November 2015, U.S. pastor David Prince was on a trip to Israel and to the West Bank. Following his visit, he wrote a sobering blog post, Pro-Jesus Thoughts about the Israel/Palestinian Conflict, in which he said:
Too often, pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, or even pro-Jesus descriptors, function merely as shibboleths. This kind of lazy sloganeering does not address any of the real and vital issues. It takes a multilayered complex situation and makes it neat and tidy. Too often this kind of approach is not the fruit of critical thinking and engagement but rather a simplistic way to avoid thinking about the issues. To do so, is an insult to God’s image bearers living in the region dealing with the consequences of the decisions that are being made. We must care about human flourishing throughout the world and in God’s providence the Middle East has always been an epicenter that inordinately affects the entire global community. Taking “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5) demands being informed and takes deliberate prayerful effort.
Pastor David’s visit to the Holy Land was organized by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It was a tour to equip Southern Baptist pastors and leaders regarding issues in Israel. Pastor Daniel Darling, who also took part in this November visit, wrote on the website of the ERLC that “Christians should be intentional about learning as much as they can about the Middle East.” He added:
[Palestinian Christians] are doing daring, difficult ministry among a majority Muslim population. What’s more they feel abandoned by American evangelicals. Millions of Christians visit Israel every year to see the Christian pilgrimage sites but don’t stop to meet and support their brothers and sisters doing gospel work. This isn’t right. This trip has caused me to pray for and support those who are in the trenches of ministry in one of the most difficult regions of the world.
In 2015, the ERLC established an international religious freedom office in the Middle East. The purpose was to “enable the ERLC to develop a holistic strategy to advocate for religious liberty and social justice.” David Platt, president of the SBC’s International Mission Board, commented on this new office by stating, “In a land of religious liberty, we have a biblical responsibility to stand up and speak out on [the Christians’] behalf.” Travis Wussow, the director of international justice and religious freedom at the ERLC, said:
If you look at an issue like religious liberty, it’s hard to know what to believe or what really happened. (…) Presenting and reporting credible information in some ways is the most important thing we can do. (…) Part of what we want to do is help pastors to focus on key issues… And second, to mobilize pastors and leaders with prayer, with resources. (…) and last to advocate (…) where we can fight for those who are oppressed, poor and marginalized across the developing world.
In June 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri, SBC-affiliated church representatives at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention adopted several breakthrough resolutions, including urging churches to welcome refugees and promoting racial reconciliation. However, when it came to the Middle East, the articles and blogs of David Prince, Daniel Darling and others fell on deaf ears. During SBC’s annual meeting, the church representatives voted to adopt a resolution which was deemed by some Arab Baptist leaders as unbiblical and harmful to their peacemaking efforts. The resolution was staunchly pro-Israel, and condemned the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.”
As Ethics Daily noted, “No previous SBC resolution mentioned the BDS effort. Additionally, the most similar previous resolution, passed in 2002, called for prayer for both Israelis and Palestinians, rather than just Israelis.” This resolution came amid hastening developments in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere where BDS may be gaining ground.
The BDS movement is a growing rights-based global mobilization that seeks to bring about equality, justice and an end to the occupation of Palestinian territories, a military occupation consequent to the 1967 war. In 2009, a group of Palestinian Christian leaders published a document called Kairos, criticizing Islamic extremism and advocating non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation, which they called a sin against God. The Kairos document mirrored the 1985 South African Kairos document. It was endorsed by the leaders of 13 Christian denominations including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican, referred to “boycott and disinvestment as tools of non-violence for justice, peace and security for all.”
This SBC resolution came amid expansion of Israeli settlements, expropriation of Palestinian land, and recent appeals by Palestinian Christians (for example, Bethlehem in Danger! April 22, 2016). This month, Jewish Members of the Knesset, benefiting from the absence of the Arab MKs who were celebrating the Eid, unanimously approved a bill that criminalizes any meaningful debate on whether Arab Israeli Christians should join the Israeli military or not. This bill is viewed to be part of a wider set of Israeli policies designed to divide the Palestinian community in Israel along religious lines.
This situation of Palestinian Christians in Israel and in the Occupied Territories was highlighted in 2012 by CBS news’ 60 minutes entitled Christians in the Holy Land. The Israeli ambassador to the U.S. had attempted to prevent the show from airing , which highlights the need that Travis Wussow of the ERLC identified: provide credible information and work to know “what really happened”.
Driven by the same concern for religious freedom as the SBC, but in contrast with its actions, the European Baptist Federation expressed concern in September 2015 over the de-funding of Christian schools by the Israeli government, demanding equality with other religious affiliated schools such as Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools. In 2014, the Baptist World Alliance sent assistance to both Christian and Muslim families in Gaza that were affected by the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas.
Perhaps the ERLC should consider inviting the SBC leadership who recently supported the Israel resolution to visit Israel, Palestine and the Middle East, in pursuit of better understanding of the dynamics of the enduring conflict. Perhaps then they would be further equipped to advocate for religious liberty and social justice, as per the ERLC’s mission, and to fulfill the peacemaking role Christ has called us to in Israel/Palestine in the same way they are seeking to fulfill that role when it comes to racial reconciliation in the U.S.
As respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms erodes globally and in the Arab world, the Body of Christ can play a role to heal and restore justice. In the Middle East, this role begins with listening, visiting, and engaging Arab Christians, and learning.
 Program presenter Bob Simon responded to the Israeli ambassador on air, “Mr. Ambassador, I’ve been doing this a long time. And I’ve received lots of reactions from just about everyone I’ve done stories about. But I’ve never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn’t been broadcast yet.”