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World Evangelical Alliance head on the long road to peace in the Holy Land

Mar 12, 2008 11:45 AM EDT
The International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance, Geoff Tunnicliffe, has returned from the Holy Land after a weeklong visit to give encouragement to Evangelicals and other Christian communities in the region, and promote peaceful resolutions to the conflict among Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.
Geoff Tunnicliffe with the Mayor of Bethlehem. (WEA)

The International Director of the World Evangelical Alliance, Geoff Tunnicliffe, has returned from the Holy Land after a weeklong visit to give encouragement to Evangelicals and other Christian communities in the region, and promote peaceful resolutions to the conflict among Israeli and Palestinian political leaders.

Here, he shares some of his thoughts on the present crisis and what Evangelicals can do in the reconciliation process.

CT: What prompted your visit to the Holy Land?

GT: The Holy Land is one of the WEA’s geographic priorities in the world; so much is impacted by what happens there. So, there were four things I was trying to do. One was to go as a learner; to continue to learn about the ongoing conflict situation on the ground there, as well as the situation for Christians; secondly, to be a real encouragement to Christian leaders in the land, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority; thirdly, to promote religious liberty, particularly for Evangelicals who are treated as second class cousins in many ways; fourthly, I was there to promote peaceful resolutions to the issues they are facing.

CT: Violence has escalated in the last few weeks. What is your response?

GT: We are very concerned about the escalating violence and any loss of life, whether that be the Palestinians who have been killed or the Jewish seminarians. It is deeply concerning and a great tragedy.

CT: What kind of role do you see Evangelicals playing in the present crisis?

GT: We have to pressure everybody in the region to promote peaceful resolutions to the current crisis. Otherwise we could get into a new cycle of violence. Violence breeds violence so we need to find a way of stepping back from that and encouraging political and religious leaders to stand for peaceful resolutions.

Obviously, extremism presents a great challenge. If you talk to the average Palestinian, they want to raise their families in peace and send their children to school and they want hope. And it’s the same for Israeli families. The majority of people really do want to live peaceful lives and they don’t want to see violence as a means of resolving the problem.

But there is extremism that will try to disrupt all peace purposes for its own good. As evangelical Christians we have to continue to promote reconciliation and the bridging of conversation that can bring some peaceful resolution. It is a huge challenge for us and also for the global community to know how to respond. How do we respond to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, for example?

CT: You met a number of leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA). What was your message to them?

GT: Yes, I met the Minister of Interior in Ramallah and I raised the concerns of the WEA over the difficulties in Gaza and the ongoing civil strife and violence there. My particular concern, in meeting both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, was representing the Evangelical community.

Evangelicals are treated very much as a marginalised minority because they haven’t been fully accepted there as long as the rest of the church community. So they lack representation very often. For example, the PA has now appointed a Christian Advisory Council but there is no Evangelical Christian on it. Following our meeting, the Minister of the Interior indicated that an Evangelical Christian would be invited to serve on that advisory body. That is certainly what Evangelical Christians are looking for there.

CT: You also spent time in Bethlehem. What is the situation like for Christians there?

GT: The reality is that they face daily challenges. In travel, for example, just being able to leave Bethlehem is hard. There is the security fence and the security checks they have to go through, and they have to get permits to travel between the two states. So it is very difficult for them. Daily life is a great challenge.

Listening to some of the Evangelical leaders in Bethlehem, particularly the young leaders, that have decided to stay I was deeply impressed by the sense of dedication that these people have in terms of wanting to stay in the land and make a difference. They could choose to leave and go to some other country, but they have remained.

CT: What can Evangelicals elsewhere do to support Christians in the Holy Land?

GT: Tourism is one of the ways we can support Christians in the West Bank. Whilst there has been a steady rising tide of tourism into Israel, the network of security checks makes it challenging for tour buses to get into the West Bank. Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the site that we should be spending time at, is difficult to get to, and because of that, tourist visits and pilgrimages have been impacted.

I stayed in Bethlehem for a couple days and met with local Christians, the town’s mayor and governor. And I produced a video in Manger Square appealing to Christians to come to Bethlehem, to visit the holy sites and spend time there.

Many Christians had to leave Bethlehem because of the economic situation brought on by the downturn of tourism, which is the primary funding mechanism in Bethlehem. There was some increase over the Christmas season and some progress over past year, but their hotels are still only at 40 per cent occupancy.

At the same time, a third of all tourists who go to Israel are Evangelical Christians and so one of the ways we can support our brothers and sisters in Palestine is to actually go and visit and spend time in the hotels, the restaurants and visit the sites in Bethlehem and spend time visiting the Evangelical Christians, because sometimes their story is not known.

Some people also have predetermined notions of security and attacks, which in Bethlehem has not been the case. And that is one of my concerns now, that the escalation of violence will potentially impact tourism in the whole of the Holy Land.

CT: Christians the world over are praying for their brothers and sisters in the Holy Land, but do they feel they are being supported? Is it tangible to them?

GT: Certainly the Evangelical Palestinian leaders I spoke to said they sensed a growing concern for their situation.

It confuses them, however, that some Evangelical groups in the West are strongly supporting orthodox Jewish groups in their resettlement and investing money in that kind of initiative when our own brothers and sisters have been neglected. At the same time those orthodox groups have put pressure on Evangelicals in Israel, whether the Messianic congregations or other Christians, and so Evangelicals have been funding enterprises that are promoting religious intolerance in the Holy Land. That confuses the Evangelicals there but it also confuses the Messianic Christians in the land.

There are a number of complex issues, therefore, that we need to be thinking about. One of my questions is: how do we care for our brothers and sisters in the land? We need to encourage the 13 Christian communions that were officially established pre-1948 by British mandate to embrace Evangelical Christians more openly and accept them as equals. There has been some resistance to that, so we will be in conversation through other communions, like the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, to influence an acceptance of Evangelical Christians in the land and work towards achieving full acceptance.

CT: What kind of support do Evangelical Christians receive from the Israeli Government?

GT: The Israeli Government understands clearly that Evangelical Christians are discriminated against but they say simply that it would be difficult to change the status quo. Our position is that, yes, that can be difficult but if Israel is committed to being a democracy and promoting religious liberty then it needs to take action and bring equality for those who are minority groups within their country.

One example is that they are working on a curriculum for their public school on Christianity and no Evangelical Christians were consulted on the texts. Worldwide, there are around 420 million Evangelicals. That’s around 25 per cent of the world’s two billion Christians. In the Holy Land, there are probably 8,000 messianic Christians and around 5- or 6,000 Arab Evangelical Christians there. So there is a strong case for Evangelical representation.

CT: You met representatives of the Israeli Government. Did you raise that with them?

GT: There was some warmth towards us. The Israeli Government acknowledged that Evangelical Christians have been significant supporters of the state of Israel, and they say Evangelicals are their best friends in the world. My question is: is this how you treat your best friend?

I met with Mrs Olmert, the Prime Minister’s wife, and we had a very warm meeting, with the primary focus on the refugee crisis in Israel. Thousands of Africans have come as refugees to Israel, including Darfurians from Sudan and Mrs Olmut asked our community for help in assimilating those who are being accepted into Israeli society and in the screening process.

And that’s the challenge of it all because on the one hand the Israeli Government wants the support of Evangelicals for the state of Israel and help in responding to this crisis, and we are people of good will who have an obligation to do that. But at the same time we are looking for the status of Evangelicals in the land to be changed and that relates to how other churches view Evangelicals. I know there is some fear there and some of the bishops in the other communions have spoken loudly against Evangelicals.

We have to work on reconciliation with those other communions if we are going to resolve this because the Israeli Government can continue to say ‘well Evangelicals aren’t even accepted by other Christian communions’. If that were no longer an excuse, then I think it would put additional pressure on the Israeli Government to change the status of Evangelicals.

CT: How is the situation for Christians in Gaza?

GT: The circumstances of the people in Gaza are very difficult. There aren’t many Evangelical Christians there but last October the head of the Bible Society in Gaza was murdered and there have been ongoing threats and violence there. Some of the families have had to flee and they are now in Bethlehem. The pastor of the church in Gaza is in Bethlehem right now and he wants to go back to his congregation in Gaza but his permit is being blocked by the Israeli Government. They won’t let him travel.

So I met with the Gaza Christians there to encourage them but also to reassure them that someone will take up their concerns. I said to the Israeli Government, here are some people that want to go back as people of reconciliation into a very difficult place and it would be very easy for them to stay out but they want to help and they are being impacted by the fact that the Israeli Government won’t give them a permit to travel.

I think if there was greater official status for Evangelicals it would allow for the greater ease of movement and that’s one of the things we are going to follow up on.

CT: What shape will the work of the WEA in the Holy Land take in the long-term?

GT: I think the WEA has to continue to be a megaphone for the voices of our brothers and sisters in the region to the greater global church, because oftentimes those voices are not heard or they are misunderstood. Evangelicals also have to be committed to reconciliation and promoting peace but looking at the whole land and the whole of the issues. We tend to look at them with a certain set of glasses and we know that within the Evangelical community there are different theological positions on the land and we accept that but we have to ask, how do we look at issues around justice?

I think we need to have this balanced approach when looking at it and I think if we can step back and look at the whole land and not just one perspective that could be very helpful for us.

Not only that, but Judaism and Islam and Christianity all come together in the same place, so we have to look at how we are going to promote harmony and religious freedom for all of us. I think that will be a challenge.

I am not naive to think this is going to be resolved over night. But we have to continue to be hopeful and work towards this. And there are signs of hope. We are seeing some wonderful ministries of reconciliation between Arab Christians and Jewish Christians but we just don’t hear those stories. We listen to the BBC and CNN and we hear what they have to say, and so some of those stories are lost. The question is: how can we promote those stories?

One of the outcomes of my visit was the possibility of appointing an ambassador to the Holy Land that would represent Evangelical issues, both to the government and Christians and other faith communities. That’s something we are going to continue to work on in the long-term.