Rival Christian interests undermine Pope's message of Middle East peace

Israel wants Pope Francis to promote peace on his visit. But with Christians increasingly backing opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they may be calcifying the divide.

Mohamad Torokman/REUTERS
A woman walks past posters of Pope Francis and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Bethlehem May 22, 2014. With a rabbi and a Muslim leader in tow, Pope Francis makes his first visit to the Middle East on Saturday, a delicate mission to push his vision of inter-religious dialogue as a vehicle for peace in the region. He will visit Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and Israel during his May 24-26 trip.

When Israeli President Shimon Peres invited Pope Francis to visit the Holy Land, he urged him to "bring peace in a stormy area."

But a deep political divide among Christians, who are increasingly backing opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, make the Christian community an unlikely mediator. 

As the ranks of evangelicals swell, Israel has cultivated millions of global supporters – 900 elected representatives from 30 countries have transformed biblical support for Israel into political support. But since Palestinian church leaders called for Christian solidarity five years ago, mainstream Protestants have increasingly aligned themselves with pro-Palestinian initiatives, including the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to bring about an end to the Israeli occupation through financial pressure.

Catholics fall somewhere in the middle, with heavy involvement in aid work on the Palestinian side, but steadily improving relations with Israel as well. 

Christians' alignment with opposite sides has stiffened attitudes on both sides, in part by feeding into the perception that what is good for one side is bad for the other.

“The good news is that religious people around the world care,” says Rabbi David Rosen, who represents Israel’s chief rabbinate on the interfaith Council of Religious Institutions of the Holy Land, which also includes church leaders and the Islamic waqf. “The bad news is … that supporters of both communities abroad – and in particular religious groups – tend to play into the zero-sum paradigm.”

While most Christians point to theological reasons for their politics, some say such political engagement goes against Jesus's teachings – and prevents them from playing a more constructive role.

“Sometimes Christians, both locals and internationals, tend to be … looking to politicize the cause too much,” says Wadie Abu Nasser, a Palestinian Christian with Israeli citizenship and former spokesman for the Catholic church. “I believe the Christians are called clearly in the Bible by Jesus to be the salt of the earth – the very tiny minority that changes the taste for good.”

The roots of Christian Zionism

Christian support for a Jewish state in the land of Israel goes back at least half a century before the emergence of the Jewish Zionist movement; in 1819, John Adams called for the Jews to establish an independent nation.

In 1967, when Israel trounced its Arab neighbors in a six-day war, Democrats and Republicans supported the country in virtually equal numbers. But Christian support for a Jewish state dramatically reshaped this bipartisan consensus in the 1980s and 1990s. 

By 2004, Republicans registered 80 percent support vs. only 51 percent among Democrats – a vast gap that Israeli political scientist Amnon Cavari attributes in large part to the rise of evangelicals and the alignment of this religious group with the Republican Party. 

The US Congressional Israel Allies Caucus is the largest of 28 such caucuses around the world. Next week, Latvia and Estonia will bring the total to 30.

Today, the polarizing nature of the Israel issue "prevents the Obama administration from having a stronger say on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” says Dr. Cavari of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. “He’s very, very frustrated about what’s going on. But moving toward 2014 election he can’t really say a lot without enraging the right on foreign affairs.” 

Milestone: Kairos Palestine

Palestinians have also realized the benefit of cultivating support from Christians abroad, many of whom didn't even know there were Palestinian Christians: they represent only 2 percent of the population in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, with about 151,000 and 50,000 Christians respectively.

Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestinian Christian whose family hails from the Bethlehem area, recalls being asked by an incredulous Christian Zionist from Peru, “Oh wow, when did you convert?”

“For Palestinians, the more we develop our messages, our relations with these Christians abroad, … the more involvement we get from them. And we notice the difference five years ago and today,” says Rifat Kassis, coordinator for the Kairos Palestine initiative.

The 2009 Kairos Palestine document was a milestone. It was modeled on the 1985 Kairos declaration in South Africa – named after a Greek word for “opportune moment” – which called on churches to end their support for the state’s apartheid policies. The Palestinian version asks Christians to help end the Israeli occupation, which it refers to as “a sin against God and humanity because it deprives the Palestinians of their basic human rights, bestowed by God.”

The World Council of Churches, which represents 500 million Christians from Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant churches, supported the document, as did the Presbyterian church in the US. It also received nods of support from the United Church of Christ and some Episcopalians. The related Christ at the Checkpoint conference saw a nearly tripling in attendance between 2010 and 2012, from 250 to 600, including some mainstream evangelicals.

Israeli officials, Jewish groups, and many pro-Israel Christians, however, have denigrated Kairos and its allies as undermining Israel’s legitimacy, and some have even called them anti-Semitic.

Theological crossfire

At issue are conflicting interpretations of theology. Christian Zionists support the Jews' return to the land, manifested in the state of Israel, as a fulfillment of prophecy that will culminate with the second coming

“We believe that the Bible gives overwhelming credentials to the Jewish return to the land," says David Parsons of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, the largest Christian Zionist organization here. 

On the other side, Palestinian liberation theology introduced in the late 1980s by Rev. Naim Ateek – a Palestinian citizen of Israel – rejects the idea of a chosen people with special rights to the land.

“Do we really believe that God is a biased God? That he loves Jewish people more than other people?” asks Rev. Ateek, an Anglican priest and head of the Sabeel organization, which has affiliates in more than 10 countries.

He says he’s seen a change in attitudes – a "pro-justice shift" – among American and European Christians. While many Israelis and their supporters discount the role of Palestinian Christians in bringing this about, they worry that Israel's support base is being undermined in that community. 

“If Israel wants to maintain strong faith-based support in the US, it can’t ignore young evangelicals,” says Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009-13.

David Brog, head of the 1.6 million-member Christians United for Israel (CUFI), recently detailed a pro-Palestinian shift in everything from young evangelicals’ literature to their agenda on visits to the Holy Land and warned of the consequences. 

“The day that Israel is seen as the moral equivalent of Hamas is the day that the evangelical community – and by extension the political leaders it helps elect – will cease providing the Jewish state any meaningful support,” wrote Mr. Brog, who told the Monitor that CUFI is focusing more than ever on “telling the truth about Israel” on college campuses, where it has more than 120 chapters.

‘What we need is... people who love us both’

Michel Sabbah, the Latin Patriarch emeritus of Jerusalem, says that a key part of the pope’s message will be encouraging Christians to overcome their own differences so that they can better help reconcile Israelis and Palestinians. 

The key to overcoming polarization both among local communities and their supporters abroad, says Rabbi Rosen, is a “win-win approach.”

“Only when Palestinian society is flourishing can Israel be really secure. And only when Israel is really secure can Palestinian society really flourish,” he says. “What we need is not partisan support, but people who love us both – or at least try to love us both.”

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