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Christians hit theological rift on Mideast policy

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2002

Having watched TV coverage of Palestinians scaling walls to get to work and enduring beatings at the hands of Israeli soldiers, Lois Gode felt a Christian calling this spring to go explore prospects for leading tours where Israeli F-16s had been dropping bombs by night.

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"I'm a person who cannot stand injustice," says Ms. Gode, a Benton City, Mo. homemaker. "All this has to do with greed and taking land away from people by whatever means they can get it."

At the same time this spring, other Christians from the American heartland were at the Sea of Galilee singing in four-part harmony at the enshrined site where Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount. Though these bearded men and head-covered women share Gode's faith, they had braved an environment of daily suicide bombings to answer a contrary calling: encourage Israel in an hour of need.

"Jerusalem is suffering," says Galen Bowman of Old German Baptist Brethren Church in Belkite, Ind. "We're trying to help out. We need to support Israel" as visitors, he says, because Israel is God's way of preparing the Messiah's return.

As war in the Holy Land rages on, American Christians claim a greater stake in the situation as they strive to understand dynamics behind the news and to take moral stands. But the more informed they get, the more they part company along perennial fault lines of biblical interpretation and the role of politics in faithfulness. They feel increasingly invested in the conflict as denominational leaders frame it in moral and theological terms. For example:

• On April 30, leaders of two major denominations and the National Council of Churches said a "just resolution" requires Israel to end settlements and military occupation of Palestinian territories.

• On May 1, Southern Baptist theologians gathered to discuss how Israel's current struggle might be fulfilling biblical prophecy as God's project to regather the Jews in Zion and prepare the Messiah's return.

• This month, Zion's Herald magazine of Christian opinion is printing extra editions of its current issue on the Mideast, anticipating demand for it as congregational study guides.

• Middle East conflict experts at the Society for Biblical Studies (SBS) in Arlington, Mass., are making presentations once a week – up from once a quarter two years ago.

Formerly disinterested Christians "have been shocked into awareness of what's happening over there," says Peter Miano, of SBS. "We are saturated with information, but we're lacking understanding. That's what people are wanting."

"I don't think anything since Vietnam or apartheid has had the impact [in Christian communities] that this is having," says Stephen Swecker, editor of Zion's Herald. "It hits very close to the heart when you see ... the Church of the Nativity under siege and sniper fire lighting up the site where Jesus was born."

When Holy Land tours started getting cancelled inautumn 2000 due to safety concerns, Christians began to probe behind the headlines to know more, says Christianity Today deputy managing editor, Timothy Morgan. But, he says, as the conflict dominated news this year, and Christians recalled their duty "to be reconciled with God and with one another, there was a tremendous sadness over the loss of life."