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Christ at the Checkpoint USA touts peace for Palestinian Christians. Critics call it a …

Palestinian protesters chant slogans as they burn tires during a protest on the Gaza Strip's border with Israel on May 14, 2018. Thousands of Palestinians protested near Gaza's border with Israel, as Israel prepared for the festive inauguration of a new U.S. Embassy in contested Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

MIDWEST CITY, Okla. (RNS) — A gathering to promote peace for Palestinian Christians?

Or a forum for bigots and anti-Semites?

Those sharply contrasting narratives emerged as a four-day conference called Christ at the Checkpoint USA drew roughly 150 evangelical Christians to this Oklahoma City suburb last week (Oct. 15-18).

The desire to offer more Americans the opportunity to hear from the Palestinian Christian community led to the U.S. version of a conference previously held at Bethlehem Bible College, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, said the Rev. Darrell Cates, the Oklahoma conference’s director.

Cates, a United Methodist minister who estimates he has made 20 trips to Israel since 1995, said that most Christians in Israel are Palestinian. Their stories are widely ignored, he said.

“The Christian community is primarily Palestinian, and they have an experience and a witness to the faith and to the gospel that is largely discarded or discounted and dismissed by most evangelical Christians in the United States,” he said. “I think it’s because they’ve never really heard it.”

A nun walks through the Hebron Road checkpoint in Bethlehem, West Bank, on June 5, 2018. RNS photo by Dan Rabb

The organization’s name alludes to the 13 major crossings manned by Israeli military or private security officers that allow 70,000 Palestinians with day work permits entry into Israel. At the most crowded inlets to the miles of concrete wall, lines begin forming as early as 3:30 a.m., though they won’t open for hours.

Checkpoints are a symbol of sorts to those on both sides of the conflict. Critics of CATC say the organization’s use of them politicizes their intent, no matter the mission statement.

The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America criticized the conference earlier this month for inviting speakers it said were biased against Israel. The Jewish News Syndicate described the conference as part of a “concerted effort to turn Middle America away from supporting Israel.”

The NGO Monitor, a nongovernmental news outlet in Jerusalem, expressed similar sentiments.

“Christ at the Checkpoint has long been a forum for bigots and anti-Semites,” Yona Schiffmiller, director of the outlet’s North America desk, told the Jewish News Syndicate. “Predictably, this gathering seems poised to follow in that dubious tradition.”

The Rev. Darrell Cates. Screenshot via New Covenant UMC

Cates said Christ at the Checkpoint USA is not anti-Israel, though he acknowledged the complexities and passions involved.

“It’s not as simple as being for or against Israel,” the Oklahoma City pastor told Religion News Service. “It’s a really complicated situation that takes humility and understanding and insight on how to be part of the situation in a helpful way and not just with an unconditional, unquestioning loyalty to either side.”

Evangelicals from across the U.S. converged on the Reed Conference Center in Midwest City to hear speakers including Palestinian Christians, participate in workshops led by experts in human rights and law, and worship alongside those who prayed, like them, for resolution.

Jordan Buscher, 23, who hails from suburban Leawood, Kan., said she came to the conference because she cares about the future of the Middle East.

“As long as there are those willing to have conversations about peace, then that potential for peace exists,” Buscher said. “I have hope.”

She made her first visit to Israel in February as part of a group of 45 young adults with the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, south of Kansas City, Kan. While there, Buscher and her friend Keisha Clay, who also attended Christ at the Checkpoint USA, said they saw firsthand how Palestinians were marginalized in society.

“I thought I was going on a cool trip to walk in the footsteps of Jesus,” said Clay, 33. “And I did do that, but I came away also with a desire to help give a voice to those who don’t get to have one there.”

 

Keisha Clay, 33, left, and Jordan Buscher, 23, of Leawood, Kan., stand in front of a photography display depicting scenes from checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border. The two women became friends in February during a trip to Israel and attended the Christ at the Checkpoint USA conference Oct. 15-18, 2018, in Midwest City, Okla., as representatives of United Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan. RNS photo by Tamie Ross

On the day the conference concluded, the Trump administration announced it would abolish the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which has long overseen American ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and fold its operations into the newly relocated embassy in the city, The New York Times reported.

According to the Times, the move effectively downgrades American representation to the Palestinians, dealing them another blow after President Trump reversed long-standing American policy in 2017 and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, then moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, angering Palestinians.

Though not mentioned publicly at the conference, the timing of the announcement underscored the importance for forums like this one in the U.S., Buscher said.

In its mission statement, Christ at the Checkpoint says it rejects anti-Semitism and does not condemn the Jewish people, saying that many of its supporters are Israeli Jews. “We simply wish to find a life in the entire Holy Land that is free of discrimination and injustice, where each person can live without prejudice toward their race or religion. This also means we reject theologies that lead to discrimination or privileges based on ethnicity.”

But in an opinion piece published in The Oklahoman before the conference, Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Alderstein accused Christ at the Checkpoint of “recruiting evangelicals to the Palestinian cause, largely by learning to despise the Jewish state.”

“Why bring a conference to Oklahoma that preaches contempt for Jews?” the rabbis asked, concluding, “We count on the good people of Oklahoma to send them a clear message that in 2018 we need religious leaders dedicated to true peace, not theological bigots exhuming hateful ghosts of the past.”

Outside the conference center on the second night of Christ at the Checkpoint, three police cruisers lined the circle drive. Inside, uniformed officers walked the corridors, occasionally stopping to talk with attendees.

Some of the speakers at the event acknowledged they had been questioned or called out for their participation at it.

The Rev. Robert E. Hayes. Photo courtesy of The Woodlands UMC

The Rev. Robert E. Hayes, who retired in 2016 after 12 years as bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference, said he was “rebuked” by someone who was upset that he, as a bishop, was part of the speaker lineup.

“This week I’ve had some question why I should even be here,” said Hayes, who now serves as bishop-in-residence at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in the Houston area. “To them, I say, ‘Sometimes it’s good to be the bishop.’”

In his comment, Hayes drew parallels between his experiences in the 1960s and the experiences of Palestinian Christians. Hayes recalled attending Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas as a young black man in 1969. He wove together bits of the black liberation theology of the Rev. James Cone with what Hayes had observed and knew from visits to Israel that began in 2012.

The parallels compel him still to speak out, he said.

“I don’t have to be Palestinian to know how it feels to be treated like that, because I experienced it in another sense. It was like a page ripped from the 1960s,” he said. “And I don’t know if it will be in my lifetime, but I believe that wall will come down. Maybe in my grandchildren’s lifetime, those checkpoints will be no more.”

About the author

Tamie Ross

12 Comments

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  • It has probably not ever occurred to many American Evangelicals that there even is such a thing as a Palestinian Christian.

  • It might be easy to ignore the fact that Palestinian Muslims and Druze are being discriminated against in Israel. However, when American Christians realise that Palestinian Christians are also being discriminated against, this might help them see that discrimination against Palestinians is a legitimate matter for concern.

  • Would feel more fair if it were also noted that Palestinian Christians in the West Bank and elsewhere have suffered greatly at the hands of some Palestinian Muslims, who discriminate against them in many ways, as is well documented. The Christian population of the Middle East in general has plummeted as Christians have suffered physical, social, and cultural abuse at the hands of some Muslims, especially Muslim leaders. (Note I don’t say all Muslims, and reject painting everyone of any group with the same brush.) Note that under Islamic law, Christians — like Jews — are dhimmis, and are subject to restrictions, extra taxation, social stigmas, etc. Many of the region’s Christians have emigrated or have been killed, churches destroyed, etc. See the situation of the Copts in Egypt for just one example. I have no problem with trying to work toward peace in Israel and the Territories if the full plight of Middle Eastern Christians is taken into account.

  • The article contained nothing that showed why the CATC is considered to be anti-semitic, just general claims by detractors.

  • The sad thing about this story is that it provides no data to back up the concerns raised by CAMERA and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, despite the fact that there was a fair amount of information available to substantiate their concerns. I know because I attended the conference. The RNS ignored both presentation by Alex Awad, who highlighted the participation of nefarious rich Jews in the Trump Administration and the presentation by Mark Braverman who called the Western Wall a place of “genocide.” And the article makes no mention of Stephen Sizer’s participation. There is something seriously wrong with the RNS’s coverage of CATC. This is the second time they have blown it. The last time was when Daniel Rabb covered the CATC event in the West Bank. You simply cannot trust RNS to get it right on this stuff. Not at all.

  • “The Christian community is primarily Palestinian, and they have an experience and a witness to the faith and to the gospel that is largely discarded or discounted and dismissed by most evangelical Christians in the United States,”
    That is really sad

  • Of course if the Palestinian Christians complained about the Islamists that run almost all Palestinian affairs they would be whacked so they dhimmi up. Complaining about Israelis gets them praise from the Leftist Islamist alliance.

  • Thanks for the articles. I will look more deeply into CATC ideology. It’s the first I’d ever heard of them.
    As a United Methodist I work to expose and change our Christian witness from its deep-rooted Antisemitism.

  • On the last day of the conference, Mae Cannon, executive director of Church for Middle East Peace, told the audience that she had gotten a note from an orthodox Jewish friend of hers who wrote her on day two of the CATC conference. “They said, ‘Are you listening to some of the conversations because some of them sound very antisemitic?'” Cannon said.

    She went onto say that people in the Christian peacemaking community need to speak about the conflict without demonizing the Jewish people. (I have it all on tape.)

    Moreover, that same day, Rabbi Michael Davis from Jewish Voice for Peace stated that there is a problem with the title of the conference itself. If Christ is at the checkpoint, Davis asked, then what does that make the Israeli soldier?

  • Mr. Van Zile, If you were there at CATC, did you actually talk with Stephen Sizer, Alex Awad, Mark Braverman, Sami Awad, Mae Elise Cannon, Gary Burge or any of the other speakers? Or were you there as a ‘lurker’? I find your writings — on CAMERA, “Breaking Israel News’ and other hard core Zionist online venues — to be exactly the kind of truly anti-semitic posts that bring the biblical values of Judaism and Christianity into disrepute. You, Lee Kaplan, David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes etc. are all supporters of apartheid, and it is time for readers of RNS to face this reality. You do not speak biblical truth, and I suspect you may be supporters of Trump and his fascist tendencies. Israel’s new ‘Basic Law’ finally formalizes the apartheid policies and practices that have already been operational for decades. I stand with my Jewish cohorts in Tikkun, Jewish Voice for Peace, J-Street, Breaking the Silence, HaMoKed, the Parents Circle, B’tselim and others in resisting your version of “truth”; you are deceiving some of Christ’s followers and acting against the global body of Christ, which is the true tabernacle (dwelling place) of God. As N.T. Wright says in his book on the Psalms, the entire earth is now ‘holy land’, not just the area commonly referred to as ‘Israel’ or ‘Palestine’. Whereas once God dwelt on Mount Zion and the Jerusalem Temple, then in the Torah, since his resurrection Jesus Messiah is the Temple and thus so are His followers indwelt by the Spirit of the Living God. Peace with justice and reconciliation between Jews, Arabs (both Christian and Muslim) and all other ‘peoples’ on our shared planet must remain our biblical goal, not preferring one ‘identity’ over another. Anything less is simply racist.

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