Besides Jerusalem, there is no other city in the world more precious to Christians than Bethlehem, "The City of David", and birthplace of Jesus Christ.
Bethlehem has over thirty hotels and three hundred handicraft workshops. Rachel's Tomb, an important Jewish holy site, is located at the northern entrance of Bethlehem.
The city is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, although the size of the community has sadly shrunk over recent years due to emigration to Europe and the United States, and now Bethlehem has a Muslim majority population.
Surrounding the area is what is called "The Israeli West Bank barrier" which Israel argues is necessary to protect Israeli civilians from Palestinian terrorism, including the suicide bombing attacks that increased significantly during the Second Intifada. The Palestinians most commonly refer to the barrier as the "Racial Segregation Wall," or the "Apartheid Wall."
The barrier has many effects on Palestinians including reduced freedoms, reduction of the number of Israel Defense Forces checkpoints, road closures, loss of land, increased difficulty in accessing medical and educational services in Israel, restricted access to water sources.
So with that background, I have traveled to Bethlehem to join with hundreds of people from all over the world who are here for the third "Christ at the Checkpoint" Conference, that is now underway, and is causing much controversy amongst different Christian groups.
The conference theme, "Christ at the Checkpoint III: Your Kingdom Come," draws from the Lord's Prayer to ask how Jesus Christ would approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.
It is being held from March 10-14, 2014, in Bethlehem's beautiful Jacir Palace Intercontinental Hotel, and outside the hotel on Monday evening, traffic was quite busy, but there was nothing visible occurring out of the ordinary. Traffic flowed well, and people walked in and out of a local grocery store buying necessities. It could have been anywhere-in the world -- almost.
However, just a few hundred yards from the hotel was a quiet reminder of what the conference is all about. A sign read, "Warning. This is illegally occupied land. State of Palestine." I soon realized that this is an area where ongoing tension bubbles just beneath the surface.
Back at the conference, the Rev. Munir Kakish, President of the Evangelical Council in Palestine, opened with a word of greeting.
"As a religious group we are unable to practice our civil rights ... Our council prays for peace and justice to rule our land," he told the conferees.
World Evangelical Alliance CEO Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe also greeted delegates, and began by requesting official recognition of his group's member churches from the Palestinian Authority, adding "I will bring the same message to Israel later this week."
He concluded by saying, "My hope and prayer is that as evangelicals we can be on the leading edge of peace, so that in coming years there may be a new bridge of peace."
"Christ at the Checkpoint" (CATC) was first organized in 2010 by Bethlehem Bible College, held again in 2012 and continues this year with the same mission. CATC said that its aim is "challenging evangelicals to take responsibility in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God."
Topics covered include the Palestinian Church, religious radicalism, Christian Zionism, Jesus' teachings amid conflict, the Kingdom of God, peacemaking and reconciliation. There are also optional visits to the Bethlehem checkpoint every morning, as well as field trips around Bethlehem, Hebron and East Jerusalem. Each day's schedule includes praise, worship and Bible exposition before the morning session, followed by afternoon field visits, fellowship time and small group discussions.
Evening sessions include worship in both Arabic and English, followed by two speakers and several conference videos. The last day features nine workshops on topics ranging from Islam, women's issues to media, with two action groups reserved for pastors and theologians.
More than 25 speakers from Israel/Palestine and abroad will share at the conference, including Messianic Jewish leaders, Evan Thomas and Daniel Juster, who are present, along with Holy Land Trust director Sami Awad, Palestinian Bible Society director Nashat Filmon, and Bethlehem Bible College President, Jack Sara.
Dr. Bishara Awad, the founder of the Bethlehem Bible College and a CATC co-founder, told me he is excited about the conference. "We'll look at the Bible and we'll see what God is telling us about the land. We hope that people will start loving and not hating the Palestinian people." When asked why he thought a number of people are angry about CATC, Awad said that it was because the conference is challenging some people-especially Messianic Jews-to take another look at their theology.
He added, "They've had a monopoly on the Bible for so long. Jesus loves everyone, including Palestinians." He told conference attendees, "Unlike every other conference, we invite those who do not agree with our theological position." Awad added, "We are humble enough to listen to those who agree with us, but we will never allow our disagreement to degenerate into hatred."
Pastor David Adams from Grand Rapids, Michigan said this is the third CATC he has attended and he appreciates that the conference organizers share both sides of the issue. Adams said maybe those who are angry feel that way "because they don't want people hearing anything remotely sympathetic to Palestinians." CATC draws a lot of people from the United States, Adams said, "Because if there's going to be anything happening in the region, the U.S. will have something to do with it."
Jordan-based Manara Ministries CEO, Isam Ghattas, who has been heading up a ministry to help Syrian refugees who have poured over the border since the conflict began in their country, told me that he is at the conference to "listen to both sides." He said, "I am not for the Palestinians or Israelis. I am for Jesus. As a Christian, I love everyone."
Ghattas reflected, "Think about if you're an Arab Christian who's been crushed by the elephants. That's Arab Christians. Please don't let Christianity die in her birthplace." Daniel Aqleh, webmaster for the Bethlehem Bible College, said CATC is a way to "present the Biblical view and address the politics here." He added that God is a God of justice, love and peace who blesses the peacemakers. He didn't say He would bless the troublemakers, Aqleh said.
Asked why he thought some people were upset about the conference, Aqleh said, "I'd prefer not to go into details. I'd rather be safe. "A scathing March 2014 report (www.ngo-monitor.org/article/christ_at_the_checkpoint) by the NGO Monitor had a different viewpoint on the conference than that shared by many conference participants.
It read in part, "Despite its call for 'reconciliation,' the manifesto does not address core issues of the conflict, including Palestinian rejection of Israel's existence as a democratic and Jewish state, and the use of terrorism against Israeli civilians by various Palestinian terror groups." The document was titled: "Christ at the Checkpoint: How the U.S., U.K. and Dutch Governments Enable Religious Strife and Foment Mideast Conflict."
The Institute on Religion and Democracy's Mark Tooley also weighed in. Commenting in a news release, Tooley said that while evangelicals do need a fresh public policy perspective on the Middle East that stresses human rights for all people, CATC isn't it. He continued, "No doubt sincere, well intentioned people will attend Checkpoint. But they are dangerously naïve to accept, much less to promote, Checkpoint's narrative."
So while it's impossible to know why everyone is here, the not-at-all-naive Ghattas seemed to sum up the viewpoint of many of those people to whom I talked, saying "I'm not here for political reasons, but to connect with people."