At ‘Christ at the Checkpoint,’ Palestinian Christians rail against Western church’s response to war

(RNS) — Daniel Bannoura, a Palestinian and a Ph.D. candidate in theology at the University of Notre Dame, was disappointed in Russell Moore. Bannoura had been reading the Christianity Today editor-in-chief’s recent book, “Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America,” in which Moore bemoans Christian nationalists’ rejecting Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as “weak.” At the same time, Bannoura said, Moore had failed to consider the Sermon on the Mount in his Oct. 7 commentary in his magazine, justifying Christian support for Israel’s war on Gaza.

“How can you quote ‘love our enemies’ when you are supporting bombing them? How can you talk about just-war theory?” Bannoura asked the audience crowded into the auditorium at Bethlehem Bible College, in the West Bank, on May 24 at the biennial Christ at the Checkpoint conference.

Noting that Moore serves on the council of The Gospel Coalition, Bannoura chided him for his association with a group that compared Hamas to the Amalekites, the biblical enemies of the Israelites, before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the comparison as justification for annihilating Hamas.

“Maybe Russell hasn’t read his own book, maybe, like MAGA Christians, he also thinks the Sermon on the Mount is too weak,” said Bannoura.

The divide that has opened during the Israel-Hamas war between Christians in the Holy Land and Christians in the West was a prominent theme at Christ at the Checkpoint, held May 22-26 this year under the banner “Do Justice, Love Mercy,”

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem, and the Bible college’s academic dean, said the past seven months have created a huge chasm between Palestinian Christians and the global church.

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, addresses a vigil at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

The Rev. Munther Isaac, pastor of Bethlehem’s Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church, addresses a vigil at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, Nov. 28, 2023. (RNS photo/Jack Jenkins)

Isaac called for a more vocal action to hold Western church leaders accountable. “We need to be more strategic. General calls are not enough. We need to think of specific calls, such as a possible campaign against Christianity Today signed by evangelical leaders.”

Bannoura, who is on the conference’s steering committee, urged his colleagues to issue a strongly worded rebuttal to evangelical leaders like Moore who have defended Israel.

That document, “A Call for Repentance: An Open Letter from Palestinian Christians to Western Church Leaders and Theologians,” quickly garnered backing from Christian Palestinian leaders. Posted on, the petition quickly received more than 21,500 signatures.

This year’s conference, which drew about 250 participants from around the world, took place despite challenges presented by the war’s security measures. Israel turned back two South African registered members at the King Hussein Bridge, the only operating land entry point to the West Bank. An American participant was refused entry at the Tel Aviv airport. (Isaac, his travel permit revoked by the Israeli government due to his activism, was not allowed to make a visit to Jerusalem with other conferees.)

Those who were able to attend heard a wide range of speeches and participated in workshops with such titles as “Mobilizing for Peace in the U.S.,” “Reconciliation to Coexistence” and “Media Bias in Coverage of the War on Gaza.”

Smoke and explosions rise inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Sunday, March 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Smoke and explosions rise inside the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, March 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Varsen Aghabekian, the first member of the Palestinian cabinet from the Armenian Palestinian community, read Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ address to the conference, saying, “Peace will prevail when questioning the plight of Palestinians for self-determination and accessing their rights is not understood as anti-Jewish, antisemitic or an attempt to demonize or delegitimize Israel, which has been recognized by Palestinians on 78% of historic Palestine.”

The speech, the sole nontheological presentation at the conference, nonetheless appealed to the audience in familiar terms: “We all need to expend effort to maintain hope,” the address declared. “Hope in a better future where there is no occupation of another people’s land, and when the Bible is used for promoting peace rather than war, killing and suffering.”

Jack Sara, president of the Bethlehem Bible College, also spoke in terms that any Sunday school child would understand. Repeating one of the best-known Bible verses, he said many Western church leaders seem to have forgotten its words. “’For God so loved the world’ also includes Palestinians,” Sara said. “God’s love for all includes Palestinians and is not conditional.”

But the Christian gathering pointed to solutions, and healing. Salim Munayer, founder of the Jerusalem nongovernmental organization Musalaha, which facilitates reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, noted the significant power imbalance in the conflict. “An honest diagnosis reveals we are dealing with settler colonialism aimed at eliminating the other,” Munayer said.

Effective reconciliation, he argued, must therefore be twofold: It must both restore relationships and address systemic injustices. “Without tackling these root issues, any efforts at reconciliation will merely perpetuate victimization,” Munayer asserted. “For true reconciliation, we must confront the reality of the situation and the structures of injustice nonviolently. This requires a change in attitude and approach, especially among fellow Christians.”

Fares Abraham, the Palestinian American CEO of Levant Ministries, made a passionate call for a “Christ-centered response,” saying, “Followers of Christ can’t ignore the suffering in Gaza.” But he expressed regret for all the deaths that have led to the current situation. “We mourn every loss of life. We mourn those killed on Oct. 7,” he said, “and we pray for the release of the hostages, and we mourn all Palestinians killed in this war.”

Abraham, who said 25 members of his wife’s family have taken refuge in Gaza’s churches, insisted that his call for compassion for both sides should not be controversial. “This is who we are as Christians,” he said. “We need to follow Christ’s example and respond biblically to human suffering with unconditional compassion.”

The calls for a Christian response to the war were present in the 100 handwritten messages of hope and support for the church in Palestine that an American couple from North Carolina, Sara and George Salloum, delivered to the conference organizers, who posted them at the Bible college and sent copies to the churches in Gaza.

But there was a more defiant strain of hope in some of the speeches. Lamma Mansour, a researcher in social policy at the University of Oxford and a Rhodes scholar, called on Palestinians to become an example of hope. “Not the naive kind of hope but the hope with power to be bold, to defy arrogance of the oppressor and hope that speaks truth to power.”

Mansour noted that “hope gives us the power to defy the arrogance of oppression and to persist. It renews our strength to love our enemy and to keep protesting, and hope gives us the power to imagine.” Her concluding words brought a standing ovation: “We may be persecuted, and hope ensures us that we will not be abandoned.”

(Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem and the publisher of The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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