By Richard Mather
Every couple of years the city of Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus, hosts the provocatively-titled Christ at the Checkpoint (CatC), an anti-Zionist convocation of Arab Christians, Western evangelicals and a handful of Messianic Jews. This year’s conference (March 7-10) is taking place at the Orient Palace hotel in Beit Jala. Ironically, the event is being safeguarded by the Israeli army because the conference organisers fear that the Palestinian Authority is either incapable or unwilling to protect their Christian guests from the perils of Islamist terrorism.
CatC claims to be conciliatory and pro-peace, but almost every speaker will use this year’s conference to blame Palestinian suffering on Israel and they will do so in the harshest terms. CatC holds the belief that the Jewish state is an aberration and an occupying power. If previous years are anything to go by, the derogatory rhetoric about Israel will be vile. When it is couched in the terminology of Christian replacement theology, it is horrifying. When you watch online clips of previous CatC conferences and you see people like Dr Manfred Kohl, a German Christian, referring to Jews as “dummkopfs” (“idiots”) and blaming the State of Israel for undermining the redemptive work of Jesus, you feel physically sick.
The conference is organised by the Bethlehem Bible College, whose mission is to “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.” The theme of this year’s gathering is the “gospel in the face of religious extremism.” Given the nature of the event and the type of people in attendance, this is laughable. One of this year’s keynote speakers is Mustafa Abu Sway, a Muslim supremacist who served as president of the Islamic Society of Boston in the early 1990s. In 2002 he told an interfaith meeting that he wished the State of Israel “would disappear.” According to investigations by Daniel Pipes, Abu Sway has raised money for several Hamas-related organisations, including the Al-Aqsa Foundation of South Africa. Abu Sway’s ‘scholarship’ is even featured on Hamas’ website.
CatC says the motivation for organising this year’s conference is that “the religious aspect of the conflict, which has not been the primary issue in the past, has become more pronounced” (my italics). Only someone who has spent the last hundred years on another planet could say that religion “has not been the primary issue” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Anti-Jewish violence in Mandate Palestine, Israel and other parts of the Middle East has nearly always been religiously-motivated. If you look at the documents, news reports and speeches from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, you’ll discover that Muslims in Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt couched their hatred of Jews in extreme religious terminology.
The histrionics of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, the father of Palestinian Islamic nationalism, is a case in point. Husseini believed it was a religious impossibility for Muslims to share the land with Jews. Even areas where Jews formed a majority were considered to be a kind of religious defilement. Husseini called on his fellow Arabs to “not forget that the Jew is your worst enemy and has been the enemy of your forefathers.” Not surprisingly, his bombast resulted in various pogroms, massacres and terrorist atrocities. He was a friend to Hitler and a hero to Yasser Arafat, and his legacy of violence is still evident in the twenty-first century.
CatC says that it “condemns all forms of violence unequivocally.” But given Abu Sway’s invitation, it appears that the anti-Semitic violence of Hamas is exempted, which may explain why CatC is also urging Christians to use this year’s conference as an opportunity to come to terms with Islamist extremism. Christians should try to “understand the global context for the rise of extremist Islam,” states CatC. This is interesting. What exactly is the global context for extremist Islam? Is it American military hegemony? Is it the existence of Israel? Is it the 2003 Iraq War? Is it the conflict in Syria? Or is it the imams and hate preachers who use the Quran and the Islamic commentaries to justify the slaying of unbelievers?
The event organisers say there has been a “marked increase in religious extremism particularly within the Jewish and Muslim communities in our region, and, to a lesser degree, in the Christian community in the West.” Well, there is nothing new about Islam-inspired violence, although I suppose the actions of Islamic State have raised the bar to a new level. As for Judaism, there is little evidence of Jewish extremism. Yes, there have been some isolated outbursts of violence in the Israeli-administered territories, but they pale in comparison to the barbarism of knife-wielding, machete-waving Arab terrorists who roam the land of Israel like wild beasts. As for Christians, there is little evidence of extremism in the West, unless CatC is referring to the fanaticism of anti-Zionist left-wing evangelicals, but I doubt it.
Predictably, CatC says the “occupation” is at the core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is nonsense. The core of the conflict is religious anti-Semitism, as well as Islamic supremacism. To the average Islamist, Jews are third-class citizens who have no right managing their own affairs. Jews must be dhimmis or be put to the sword. Likewise, the so-called occupation is used to explain the suffering of Palestinian Christians. I accept that Israeli security arrangements make life difficult for Arab Christians, but relentless terrorism has necessitated these safety provisions. And let’s not forget that many Bethlehemite Christians cooperated with Fatah terrorists during the Second Intifada, so they must shoulder some of the blame for the security restrictions.
Actually, it is Palestinians officials, and not Israel, who have made life intolerable for Christians in Bethlehem (and Gaza). In 1948, Bethlehem was 85 per cent Christian. Under Jordanian rule, this fell to 46 per cent. The situation stabilised when Israel managed Bethlehem between 1967 and 1995. But in the twenty years following Israel’s withdrawal, Bethlehem’s Christian population has declined to a mere ten per cent, from 20,000 Christians to around 5,000. Why? Because of persecution and harassment by both the Palestinian Preventive Security Service and various Islamist factions.
I cannot be certain but I think CatC derived its confrontational name – Christ at the Checkpoint – from Naim Ateek’s image of Jesus as “the powerless Palestinian humiliated at a checkpoint.” Ateek, who was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1967, spoke at CatC’s inaugural conference in 2010. His Jesus-at-the-checkpoint image was the central plank of his Easter message in 2001 in which he invoked the charge of deicide by accusing the “Israeli government crucifixion system” of crucifying Palestinians. Perhaps Ateek was inspired by Yasser Arafat who (in a speech made in Bethlehem in 1995) referred to Jesus as “the first Palestinian Christian.”
Ateek and Arafat were wrong in their assertion that Jesus was a Palestinian and/or a Palestinian martyr. He was not. Jesus, or Yeshua as he was known, was a religiously-observant Zionist Jew who quoted from the Tanakh and announced he had “come for the lost sheep of Israel.” As Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes in his book Kosher Jesus, Yeshua or Jesus “was a great political leader who fought for the liberation of his people” and was “concerned with the political freedom of the Jewish nation.”
The Palestinian Jesus myth is a core component of Palestinian replacement theology. Christian Palestinianists interpret the Bible from an Islamic point of view and do not admit to any historical or theological connection between biblical Israel, the Jewish people and the modern Israeli state. Christian Palestinianists depict Jews as a cruel and oppressive people who merit everlasting exile. Far from turning the other cheek, Christian Palestinianists are committed to a jihad for Jesus, a kind of Chrislamic crusade against Jews and the Jewish state.
An article about CatC would not be complete without mention of Stephen Sizer, the notorious Anglican pastor based in Surrey, England. Sizer, who argues that Christian Zionism has no biblical foundation, is a CatC organiser and speaker. According to Sizer, there is “no evidence that the apostles [of Jesus] believed that the Jewish people still had a divine right to the land, or that Jewish possession of the land would be important, let alone that Jerusalem would remain a central aspect of God’s purposes for the world.” (One wonders whether he’s actually read the New Testament.)
A regular contributor to Press TV and the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Sizer has been photographed with Yasser Arafat and has publicly defended Raed Salah, the Hamas fundraiser who accuses Jews of making Passover bread with the blood of Christian children. Sizer is also a conspiracy theorist. On January 20 2015 Sizer posted a link on his Facebook page to a conspiracy theory entitled “9/11 Israel did it.” Sizer was subsequently ordered by his Anglican superiors to desist from posting material on social media for at least six months. He was also banned from commenting on issues relating to the Middle East.
The CatC organisers say they welcome pro-Israel voices. But do they? In December 2010, Israeli tour guide Kay Wilson was subjected to a sustained and horrific attack by Palestinian terrorists, and her American Christian friend Kristine Luken was murdered. When Kay approached CatC about the possibility of relaying her experience to the audience of the 2012 conference, she was told that her story was “not what the Lord wants.” It appears that by excluding the victims of Palestinian terrorism and inviting associates of Hamas to speak at their events, CatC is directly or indirectly approving terrorism. As Kay herself says, “the endorsement of terror by association, at a Christian conference, is obscene.”
Even when an Israel-friendly personality is permitted to address the CatC conference, it can be counter-productive. Back in 2014, Daniel Juster, an author and an advocate of Messianic Judaism, used his address to the CatC audience to challenge replacement theology. But as the pro-Israel Messianic Jewish website Rosh Pina Project points out, Juster pandered to the audience by claiming Israel was the product of a “Jewish intifada” and that Christian Palestinian replacement theology may be an understandable response to the perceived “evil” of the “chosen people.” Juster also glossed over the issue of Palestinian terrorism and rudely disparaged the secular Jews of Tel Aviv. Not only was it a wasted opportunity, Juster’s appearance gave succour to Israel’s enemies.
All in all, CatC’s bias against Israel and its ridicule of Jewish national identity should be seen in the context of two millennia of anti-Jewish persecution by Christians exasperated by the continued existence of Jews and Judaism. Perhaps this religious exasperation explains why CatC organisers and speakers use Christian motifs to agitate the feelings of Christians. To quote the words of the Israeli foreign ministry (which cautioned Christians to stay clear of the 2014 conference), the use of religion “for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy.”
Indelible infamy indeed. It is sad and tragic that despite the horrors of the Shoah, some sections of the Christian community have warmly embraced this new replacement theology in which Christianity supplants Judaism and Palestine supersedes Israel. It ought to be of grave concern to all right-minded people that a sizable number of unethical evangelical and Arab Christians are busy rekindling the same kinds of prejudices that underscored centuries of anti-Jewish prejudice – the same prejudice that culminated in the gas chambers and the near-total destruction of European Judaism.