When we lived and ministered in Jerusalem we met many wonderful Christians of many different denominations both living in the land and from many other nations. There is a rich Christian kaleidoscope in the Old City of Jerusalem, where we lived, and in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. It was a wonderful experience to go round to a different church every evening for two weeks for united prayers for peace, mainly with Palestinian and other Arab Christians. It was moving to meet with the same people for a Unity Week service on the site of the Upper Room.
But there are real problems facing Middle East Christians. Almost half of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the first Gulf War, most of them since the invasion in 2004. It is almost unbelievable that the Bush-Blair coalition was ignorant of the crucial role of religion in Iraq. Now, partly because of the highly publicised threats to burn the Koran on the part of the foolish American pastor, there is even more persecution of Christians. Half of Lebanese Christians have left the country. Coptic Christians in Egypt now form less than 10% of the population. Jordan has a record of protecting Christians but they are only 6% of the population. Then, of course, Christianity is banned in Saudi Arabia.
In Israel many of the local Christians are Palestinian and so experience the pain and fears of the Palestinian people. One piece of good news is the remarkable growth of Jewish Christians in Israel, who normally call themselves Messianic Believers.
Although there are many supporters of both Israeli and Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land – I am one of them – there are those who have polarised. Some, fired up by a legitimate concern for justice, fall into the injustice of being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. Such people need to be careful of unconscious anti-Semitism. They harm the Christian cause in Israel.
Others are Christian Zionists, people who believe God hasn’t finished with the Jewish people and has brought them back to a safe homeland after the centuries of anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust. I accept a moderate form of Christian Zionism myself, alongside a passionate concern for justice for the Palestinians and peace in the Holy Land. However, some Christian Zionists are a pain. We ourselves suffered from some of them – expatriates – who made trouble because they wanted us to soft-pedal evangelism lest it upset the Israelis. Mind you, some of them were more concerned that they didn’t lose their visas than they were that Israelis should be won for Christ. I was well aware we were walking on egg shells, but there didn’t seem to me to be much point in being there if we weren’t doing sensitive evangelism, especially as I was General Director of a 200 year old evangelistic ministry in Israel. There was also trouble because we stressed reconciliation (which, of course, is at the heart of Christianity). These folk – again expatriates – were afraid we’d become anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian.
Perhaps, therefore, you can understand my negative reaction to a recent news story. Christian pilgrims from the US, Canada and Finland joined with right wing Israeli settlers to celebrate the resumption of settlement building on the West Bank (which threatens the peace process). They rattled tambourines and released thousands of blue and white balloons, the colours of Israel’s flag, into the sky. They also waved banners reading: “We love Israel.” One young Canadian Christian said in an interview: “We knew this was happening today, and we wanted to stand in support for all of Israel and God’s land. We love the Israelites, we love God’s way.” When asked if she supported a land for the Palestinians, she admitted she was “not familiar” with the politics.
This sort of misplaced Christian fervour confirms the idea widespread in the Middle East that Christianity is a western religion, when, of course, it originated in the Middle East. It adds to the burden of our Christian brothers and sisters there.