News

Evangelicals find like-minded Christians in unlikely place: Palestinian West Bank

Spray-painted biblical references and other graffiti cover the Israeli-built separation barrier that runs through downtown Bethlehem near the Baraka Church in the West Bank. RNS photo by Liz Donovan

Spray-painted biblical references and other graffiti cover the Israeli-built separation barrier that runs through downtown Bethlehem near the Baraka Church in the West Bank. RNS photo by Liz Donovan

 

BEIT SAHOUR, West Bank (RNS) — Smiling as he sings, Pastor Danny Awad faces his flock with eyes closed and palms turned skyward. The 30 or so worshippers scattered across two narrow rows of benches clap or sing along as the synthetic drone of an electric keyboard hums out a song of praise.

“Hallelujah!”Awad says, still smiling, as the song comes to an end. He rests his hands on the lectern, looking comfortable in front of the wooden cross that stretches floor-to-ceiling on the wall behind him. He motions for the others to be seated and prepares to deliver his sermon.

At first glance, this airy little church, modestly decorated with artificial flowers and faded posters of New Testament verses, could be any evangelical gathering from Topeka to Texas. Sunday morning hymns spill out its open windows into the small pasture outside. One detail sets this small community of believers apart, however, and has made it something of an apostate within the global evangelical community: the Palestinian flag that hangs prominently from the pulpit.

This is not the heartland, but the Holy Land. The Baraka Bible Presbyterian Church, led by Awad, sits off the main road in the West Bank village of Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. It’s an evangelical church that is proudly, defiantly Palestinian.

In the context of the Middle East, where “evangelical” has become political shorthand for conservative Western Christians with a distinctly pro-Israel orientation, the idea of a Palestinian evangelical can seem like a contradiction in terms.

Time and again, the Baraka Church has found itself caught in the conflict inherent in that moniker. The congregation broke off from its parent organization, the Bible Presbyterian Church, after a dispute over what Awad and others saw as the American church’s pro-Israel leanings.

Pastor Danny Awad, right, at home with his wife, Joy, and his father, George, in the West Bank. RNS photo by Robert Only

The subsequent dispute over the church’s land has been fought in courthouses in three different countries. It has also turned off the spigots of funding that normally flow freely to other evangelical congregations in the Holy Land.

“The other evangelicals have pretty much forsaken us, for the most part,” says Awad.

Yet even as his congregation dwindles from hundreds down to fewer than 50, Awad has begun using his unique pulpit to try to insert his voice into the global evangelical landscape. He is convinced the tide is turning, and that he’ll be able to engage American evangelicals as the unlikeliest allies for the Palestinian cause.

For now, though, the thousands of evangelical tourists who come to the Holy Land mostly stay on the other side of the separation wall that runs through the heart of downtown Bethlehem. Some are bused through the checkpoint to visit the site of Jesus’ birth, but the practicing evangelicals of the West Bank are, for the most part, kept out of sight and out of mind.

While the travel restrictions imposed on Palestinians keep Awad from traveling to Jerusalem himself, he says he is dismayed by pictures he sees of evangelical tourists praying at the Western Wall.

“They go there to worship at the dead stones of the Jews,” Awad says. “But they ignore us: the living stone, the living body of Christ.”

Awad has made it his mission to show American evangelicals that his community exists by engaging directly with American evangelical leaders. The best way to get Palestinian Christians on Americans’ radar is by entering into Christian fellowship with them, Awad says.

And at the Baraka Church’s Sunday morning service, evidence of these efforts abounds. Scattered among the Palestinian worshippers are members of evangelical congregations in Nashville, Tenn.; Toronto; and New Jersey — easily identifiable by the black earpieces through which Danny Awad’s father translates the Arabic prayers into English. Special prayer books provide both English translation and transliteration of the Arabic so the North American guests can sing along. The service includes a popular American worship song, led by Awad’s 11-year-old nephew. The Americans sing along while the locals mostly clap their hands with the music.

Many visitors are surprised to find Christians practicing this kind of worship in the West Bank. Pastor Marty Duren of Nashville came to the Baraka Church with another American pastor who had developed a relationship with Awad.

“Palestinian Christians are just totally absent from American evangelical thought,” he says. “I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience I think most don’t think about or know that there are Christians in the West Bank at all.”

It is a sentiment familiar to Awad.

“I ask people: Do you think Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania?” he says with a laugh.

Of course, support for and pilgrimage to the state of Israel by American evangelicals have to do with more than just ignorance of their co-religionists in the West Bank or contemporary politics. It is rooted in theology. Interpretations of Scripture taught throughout the evangelical world, such as dispensationalism and replacement theology, hold that the repatriation of Jews to the Holy Land is a necessary precursor to Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. The creation of the Jewish state, and especially Israel’s seemingly miraculous victory in the Six-Day War, seemed to many evangelicals to be the fulfillment of prophesy. The Second Coming, surely, must be right around the corner. While not all evangelicals are focused on eschatological belief, support for Israel became an increasingly central aspect of church culture. Many of the American Christian tourists to the Holy Land come not only to see the sites where history took place, but where they believe the End of Days will begin in the future.

For the Palestinian congregation of the Baraka Church, this question of theology is not simply a spiritual matter. Not only do congregants see it as providing justification for their displacement and oppression, it almost cost them their church.

Missionaries from an American denomination called Bible Presbyterian established the church in the 1940s during the period of British Mandate. They had a fair amount of success attracting Arab Catholic and Orthodox Christians to their Bible-centric approach to faith.

But in the decades after the creation of Israel, the American church’s growing embrace of the Jewish state opened a gulf between the parent church and its Palestinian members. An agreement was reached in which the Baraka Church would be run entirely by its local members with no interference from missionaries, but would continue to receive funding from the parent church in America.

This tentative truce was shattered in 2012 when the Bible Presbyterians attempted to sell off a large plot of the church’s land to a group that Baraka members say planned to annex the property to the neighboring Israeli settlement. The deal sparked protests and riots throughout Bethlehem.  

For Awad and the members of the Baraka Church, this was the ultimate betrayal. They attempted to block the sale though legal action that spanned Israel, the United States and Sweden and is still in process. In response, the Bible Presbyterians cut off all funding to the Palestinian church. For a church with declining membership and few outside supporters, the funding cut has left the Baraka Church financially on the brink.

Guest pastor Kevin Brown, of New Jersey, delivers a Sunday morning sermon at the Baraka Church in the West Bank on March 17, 2018. RNS photo by Robert Only

Danny Awad says his church is engaged in a decades-long battle with dispensationalism. But for a man at war, Awad is frequently willing to embrace his enemy. He often opens his pulpit to visiting pastors whose pro-Israel theological leanings he finds infuriating and personally hurtful. If they are willing to come to his church, he will have them.

On this Sunday, the guest preacher exemplifies how that strategy has borne fruit. Pastor Kevin Brown of the Perfecting Church in Sewell, N.J., was drawn to the clergy by a fascination with eschatology and the final fate of mankind. Raised with dispensationalist belief, Brown acknowledges that he still subscribes to a literal translation of Scripture pertaining to the end of days. But, he says, coming to the West Bank and experiencing Christian fellowship at the Baraka Church for the first time five years ago helped him re-examine his beliefs.

“Jesus is returning,” he says. “Other than that, I let go of the speculative theology that was dictating to me how I saw this part of the world.”

Brown now brings other American pastors to the West Bank in the hopes that their theological and political beliefs will gain nuance through interaction with the reality, and the Christians, on the ground. He says that Awad doesn’t try to directly counter guests’ beliefs. By giving up his pulpit he creates a connection between place and preacher that can’t be done any other way.

“When they’re preparing to present at that pulpit, it forces them to look at that part of the world in ways they never have and to interact with the text of the Bible in ways that they never have,” Brown says. “There’s no way that does not become in some way paradigm-shifting for them.”

Awad knows he’s not going to change everyone’s mind. He’s OK with that. He recently invited a guest preacher from the Southern Baptist Convention – a famously conservative and literalist branch of American evangelicalism. He has no illusions that the preacher left an outspoken advocate for the Palestinian people. But at least that preacher now knows that they exist — that he has brothers and sisters in Christ — invisible behind the wall.

About the author

Dan Rabb

23 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I find it “infuriating and personally hurtful” to see Awad describe the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, as “the dead stones of the Jews.” For someone supposedly devoted to countering harmful theology, he should examine his own hypocrisy first.

  • ” The congregation broke off from its parent organization, the Bible Presbyterian Church, after a dispute over what Awad and others saw as the American church’s pro-Israel leanings.”
    Like it or not, the Jewish are God’s people.

    Psalm 83 New Life Version (NLV)

    A Prayer for Israel

    83 O God, do not keep quiet. Do not be quiet, O God, and do not hold Your peace. 2 For, look, those who hate You are making much noise. Those who fight against You have honored themselves. 3 They make bad plans against Your people. They plan against those You care for. 4 They say, “Come, let us destroy them as a nation. Let the name of Israel be remembered no longer.” 5 For they plan together with one mind. They make an agreement against You: 6 The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagarites; 7 Gebal, and Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with those who live in Tyre; 8 Assyria has joined them also. They help the children of Lot.

    9 Do to them as You did to Midian, and to Sisera and Jabin at the river of Kishon. 10 They were destroyed at Endor. They were spread over the field. 11 Make their respected men like Oreb and Zeeb. Make their princes like Zebah and Zalmunna, 12 who said, “Let us take for ourselves the fields of God.”

    13 O my God, make them like dust turning in the wind, like parts of the grass that have no worth and are blown away. 14 As the fire that burns up the trees and spreads over the mountains, 15 so go behind them with Your storm. Make them afraid with Your storm. 16 Fill their faces with shame, so they will look to Your name, O Lord. 17 Let them be ashamed and afraid forever. Let them be put to shame and lost. 18 Then they may know that You alone, Whose name is the Lord, are the Most High over all the earth.

  • That didn’t come out well, did it? Saying that “[Evangelicals] go … to worship at the dead stones of the Jews. But they ignore us [Palestinians]: the living stone, the living body of Christ.” I’m of the mind that neither Jews nor Palestinians are “the living stone, the living body of Christ.” But only the fired-up and die-hard followers of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation, are!

  • “The Jews are God’s people”? No, not really, because through THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation, even the Amazonians or the Russians or the Moroccans or the Turks or yes even the Yankee-Go-Homeys “are God’s people” – “LIKE IT OR NOT”.

    Not, more like.

    Tuff.

  • Yes, the Jewish are God’s people. But we should be clear about who are those Jewish who are God’s people. We should be clear that neither ethnic identification nor ancestry is relevant. We should be clearer yet that citizenship in the state of Israel is irrelevant.
    The apostle Paul described the true Jew as different from the Jew who was only instructed by the law and was circumcised in the flesh; the true Jew had a “circumcised heart” and fulfilled the law under the direction of the Spirit. Rom. 2:17-29. Correspondingly, Paul wrote that not all physical descendants of Israel were truly Israel; nor, because they were Abraham’s offspring, were they all his true children (and heirs). Rom. 9:6-7. Abraham’s true offspring, the true Israel, are those born through the promise to Abraham and elected by God in his mercy, which includes the faithful remnant of Israel in the natural line and Gentiles who have the same faith. Rom. 9:8-29 and 11:1-5. In all this, Paul was following Jesus exactly; see John 8:37-47.
    For a while, in the first century, God’s people rightly called themselves Jewish people or Israel and rightly understood the references to themselves in scripture. Now God’s people call themselves Christians instead. This has caused some uncritical literalists to believe that OT prophecies are not about God’s people but about other people — people who today are called Jews or Israel and have in common little except the denial that Jesus is Messiah. The literalists have mistaken puns for truth. Alas, that is what literalists tend to do.

  • “They had a fair amount of success attracting Arab Catholic and Orthodox Christians to their Bible-centric approach to faith.”

    A more accurate sentence would be – they had success only in deceiving a tiny percentage of gullible apostates away from Christ’s one true Church.

  • Christ’s word does not change HpO. They will be God’s people – although they reject Him – until the second coming.

  • “They go there to worship at the dead stones of the Jews.”

    Really?

    Are you kidding me?

  • I would deny your assertion only if “Israel” is supposed to denote any group other than believers in Messiah through the ages. The Israel that is God’s chosen people is not some ancient tribe that came to be and ceased to be. Much less is it the group that constitutes the state of Israel today. The Israel that is God’s chosen people is what the Reformers called “The Church Invisible”.
    You are likely to be misunderstood when you say “the Jewish are God’s people” because most people think you are referring to an ethnic group known as the Jewish people.

  • SANDINWINDSOR: “The Jew[s] ARE God’s people.”

    ME: “ARE” – present tense. Nope. Just look around you.

    SANDINWINDSOR: “They WILL BE God’s people”.

    ME: “WILL BE” – future tense. Now we’re talking. Yup. I’m a premil too – just an anti-dispensational, anti-christian-zionist. (I know what you are.)

  • I wish that more evangelicals would recognize their obligations to both the Israeli’s and the Palestinians. I am of the opinion that all people, Jews included, need what Christ brings to the heart, apart from evangelicals trying to micromanage end times scenarios. I applaud the pastor for being able to endure and engage with evangelicals whose preferences lay elsewhere.

  • “Yet even as his congregation dwindles from hundreds down to fewer than 50…” The unasked question is: Where have those hundreds gone? Search in Google for Naim Khoury and you will find something more “unlikely” than Palestinian Evangelicals who promote Palestinian nationalism: Palestinian Evangelicals that love Israel despite persecution from radical Muslims. Their church in Bethlehem seats 600, in Jerusalem they have over 200 more and in Jericho about 40 (but even there more than Awad’s “30 or so worshippers”).

  • Romans 11 – 1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham,a a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3“Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

  • Romans 11:1 I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! For I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham,a a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? 3“Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” 4But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” 5So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace…

  • Look, predictably bible verse-dropping or not, you should be grieving badly right now for your fellow Brethren Church founders by the name of John Nelson Darby and Cyrus I. Scofield and for yourself, the victim of their Christian Zionism, a false teaching that have destroyed Fundamentalism & Evangelicalism and the rest of it.

    Wake up and smell the Palestinian Coffee!

  • Now that’s messed up. Or rather, what’s already messed up just got even messier: Christian Zionism versus Evangelical Intifada.

    What’s on the scoreboard?

    Christian Zionism: millions dead.

    Evangelical Intifada: millions dead.

    And the Oscar goes to …

  • Yes. You quote one of the texts that prove my point.
    In verse 1, Paul identifies himself as member of tribal Israel, an ethnic group, and offers himself as an example of one of those people whom God foreknew and has accepted rather than rejected. Then Paul points out that God has always accepted some of tribal Israel and he cites what God told Elijah: seven thousand of tribal Israel had faith and were not rejected. Throughout its history, tribal Israel had members whom God foreknew — members with saving faith, a “faithful remnant” — and, in verse 5, Paul says that there was a remnant in his time — a remnant of which Paul was a part. Nothing has changed. Now, almost 2,000 years later, some people who are identified ethnically as Jews believe in Messiah Jesus and are accepted rather than rejected. So, God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew would have saving faith, although God has rejected “his people” who do not have saving faith. Back in Paul’s day, when believing in one’s heart and confessing with one’s lips that Jesus is Lord was a new and decisive mark of membership in true Israel, Paul used a metaphor to describe the condition of unsaved Jews: they were “broken off” of Israel.
    Today, there is no ethnic group known as the Jewish people that is God’s chosen people, but some who are known as Jewish people are God’s chosen people along with you and me.

  • And that is where I made my error, and my apologies.
    I was discussing this with my hubby tonight and realized the brain-pfart that I was experiencing at the time.
    Christ came to die for the Jews and they rejected Him, and the Jews who will be working for Christ, will be messianic Jews. Thank you for your persistence.

  • What, is it necessary, this, then? Clearly, if in deference to you, my sister in Christ Jesus. Glad to be of service to the Closed/Open Brethren Churchgoers like you. (I was one.)

    RECAP

    SANDINWINDSOR: “The Jew[s] ARE God’s people.”

    ME: “ARE” – present tense. Nope. Just look around you.

    SANDINWINDSOR: “They WILL BE God’s people”.

    ME: “WILL BE” – future tense. Now we’re talking. Yup. I’m a premil too – just an anti-dispensational, anti-christian-zionist. (I know what you are.)

    SANDIWINDSOR: “Romans 11 – … 5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”

    ME: That “there is a remnant [of Jews], chosen by [God’s] grace [in Christ Jesus]” – present tense – does NOT mean that ALL “the Jew[s] ARE God’s people”, but only “a remnant” among them.

  • Sometimes, though, saying negative stuff like “micromanag[ing] end times scenarios” serves the purpose of publicly hiding one’s lack of understanding of, and commitment to, the prophetic teachings of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation. I take it that like Edward Borges-Silva, you’re lacking in that area, too. Can I help you with that?

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.

ADVERTISEMENTs