Palestine Pulse

Will Palestine finally recognize local evangelicals?

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Article Summary
In light of the growing influence of Christian Zionism in the West, the Palestinian leadership is revisiting recognition of evangelicals in the Palestinian territories and engaging local evangelicals to speak with Western Christians about support for Israel and the Palestinian movement.

After years of inaction and even rejection, the Palestinian government appears poised to recognize local evangelical churches in Palestine.

Al-Monitor learned from a PLO source in Ramallah that a letter of recognition had been drafted for President Mahmoud Abbas' signature more than a year ago, but was scuttled at the last minute, after the Donald Trump administration announced in December 2017 that it would be moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, a move celebrated by American evangelicals, including Vice President Mike Pence.

Saeb Erekat, secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, told Al-Monitor that the issue of the evangelical churches has unfortunately taken a while to be resolved.

“We do have a supportive position regarding Palestinian evangelicals, who are an integral part of our people and who have contributed to the development of our society,” Erekat said. “Palestinian evangelicals have contributed to the national cause both as Palestinians and as evangelicals.”

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Erekat also stated, however, “[The Palestinian government's] responsibilities under the Status Quo agreement as well as the vocal opposition of more traditional churches to recognizing [the evangelicals] have caused a delay on this issue.” The Status Quo agreement is the arrangement between various religious groups to manage issues among them largely based on the existing situation, that is, without upending the status quo.

Discussion on the evangelicals re-emerged after expressions of pro-Israeli support from leaders in Guatemala and Brazil and in light of a successful tour of Palestinian Christian leaders to Latin America in January. Two delegations, sponsored by the Palestinian Foreign Ministry and including local Palestinian evangelical leaders, visited Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil.

Hanan Jarrar, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry assistant for the Americas and the Caribbean, told Al-Monitor, “[The trip] aimed at introducing Palestinian Christians and dissuading those countries from taking positions contrary to the national rights of Palestinians, including moving their embassy and blindly supporting Israel.”

Former Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun, who took part in the delegation to Guatemala and Honduras, told Al-Monitor that the trip had been an eye-opener for her and that she was pleased with the results of the visit. “We spoke to senior officials, both political and from the local evangelical communities,” she said. 

“We had with us Palestinian evangelicals, like attorney Jonathan Kuttab, who was able to counter theological fallacies that these Latin American countries imported from their US counterparts,” Baboun stated. “Those fallacies stress Old Testament issues while ignoring the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus that peacemakers are to be blessed.”

According to Baboun, Kuttab, this author's brother, had been particularly effective in debunking Christian Zionist theology.

Only one segment of white American evangelicals, often referred to as Christian Zionists, support Israel blindly based on their politically motivated interpretation of the Bible. Many American theologians as well as black, young and progressive evangelicals — among them former US President Jimmy Carter — take a much more balanced view of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Most evangelicals in Palestine and the region largely stay out of politics, but recently some of their leaders have taken a position against Christian Zionism.

Jack Sara, president of the Bethlehem Bible College, a leading Palestinian evangelical institute that organizes Christ at the Checkpoint, a regularly held conference, was part of the second delegation that went to Brazil. Sara told Al-Monitor that the decision of the Palestinian government to include evangelical Palestinians in the delegation was rather smart and got results.

“During our visit to Brazil, we met the deputy president, local Arab ambassadors, ecumenical church leaders as well as leaders of the evangelical synod,” Sara said. “After our discussions with the evangelical synod, they assured us that they are planning to take moderate positions on the issue of Palestine and Israel.”

Sara added that Palestinian evangelicals are growing in number and institutions, so it became inevitable that the Palestinian government would change its position and work with them. “Local governments [i.e., Israel, Palestine and Jordan] need to accept and recognize our churches,” he asserted, noting that the Palestinian leadership has already begun moving in that direction. “They are already allowing us to register property in the names of our churches, and we expect soon that our evangelical synod will become the 14th recognized church.”

The Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian governments recognize 13 churches, but have refused to recognize the evangelicals. Al-Monitor learned from church sources that some of the older established churches, such as the Orthodox and Catholics, have opposed such recognition, which allows the denominations to deal with personal status issues and provides tax exemptions and other benefits.

Wasfi Kailani, director of the Hashemite Fund for the Restoration of Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, an institution under Jordan's Royal Committee for Jerusalem Affairs, stressed the importance of engaging local Arab Christians in this theological debate.

“When President Trump aligned the US position on Israel with the Christian Zionist narrative by recognizing Jerusalem as the eternal and united capital of Israel, a number of local Palestinians in Jerusalem were among the first to defend Jerusalem's [Arab] identity and the historic 1,400 years of Christian-Muslim peace and coexistence” Kailani said.

Kailani told Al-Monitor that it is the duty of Christians to fight Christian Zionism, which uses religion to justify attacks against Al-Aqsa Mosque and the historic rights of Palestinians. He remarked, “Palestinian and all rightful Christians should develop a common understanding to explain to brainwashed Christian Zionists that targeting Al-Aqsa Mosque is no more than a tool to feed antagonism between Muslims in the East and Christians of the West in favor of extremist Zionist political agendas.”

Kailani further asserted, “Christians in general, evangelicals in particular, are the best liaisons to explain manipulated facts and biblical misinterpretations to their evangelical brothers worldwide.”

Jerusalem-based Palestinian officials echoed Kailani's assertions. Hanna Issa, secretary-general of the Palestinian Authority's Islamic-Christian Council for Jerusalem and the Holy Places, told Al-Monitor that Palestinian evangelicals play a leading role in defending the Palestinian cause. “We are all Palestinians regardless of our geography, whether we are in Nazareth, Ramallah, Ei Arek, Nablus or Tibeh,” Issa said.

Local evangelical churches, Issa believes, must be recognized by the Palestinian government, which has signed several treaties that speak of equality and freedom of worship. He asserted, “We support human rights, and it is the right of these churches to be recognized so long as they abide by Palestinian law.” 

Rateb Y. Rabie, a Catholic Palestinian and the founder and director of the Washington-based Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, said he welcomes the Palestinian government’s change in policy but suggested a holistic approach.

“Some of our Palestinian evangelical friends, when they come to the US, they preach to the choir. Others attack American evangelicals without offering constructive criticism,” Rabie told Al-Monitor. “It is true that they are versed in the Bible, but they need to give their opinions as evangelicals and avoid destructive rhetoric. My advice to the Palestinian government is to work on a holistic strategy in this regard.”

Efforts to prevent the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from becoming a religious confrontation have been setback by the emergence of the worldwide Christian Zionist movement, some of whose followers have recently assumed senior positions in Latin American countries, Europe and Australia. Adequately countering those who attempt to use religion to justify occupation and subjugation cannot be done using political tools.

The Palestinian government’s recent effort to turn to local nationals of the evangelical persuasion will go a long way toward debunking many of the myths perpetuated by some newly elected political leaders under the guise that their political positions are somehow in sync with their (distorted) biblical beliefs.

Palestinian evangelicals will not only use the same Bible to counter their arguments, but will also show that fellow Christians are suffering from actions taken by Israel, which benefits from distorted justifications of its policies against the Palestinian people.

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Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist, a media activist and a columnist for Palestine Pulse. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and is currently director-general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. On Twitter: @daoudkuttab

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