Within a stone’s throw of the Bethlehem manger, a group of Palestinians is not throwing stones. They are celebrating the birth of Jesus, whom they worship. They are Palestinian—Arab—Christians.
Much of the Christian world is unaware of the small population of Arab Christians in Israel. In fact, to most people Arab Christian is an oxymoron (it’s not; Arab is an ethnicity, Christian a faith group). These are Christian believers who are in the most difficult of circumstances–Christian Arabs in a majority Islamic culture within a Jewish state. They sympathize with Palestinians seeking autonomy from Israel, but oppose the violence. They are ignored and opposed by conservative Christians, not because of their faith, but because of their politics.
I did some work a few years ago with a wonderful group in Nazareth, Israel, called the Nazareth Village Project. It is a group of Christians—expatriates and Israelis—who are developing a interpretive center on the life of Christ in the town of his childhood, and a First Century walk, to demonstrate the life of New Testament times.
This group is a example of Christian witness that is reaching out and demonstrating Christ’s love to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They are struggling because their center relies on tourist interest. Holy Land tourism is in the pits right now, as you might expect.
I spent some time with the chairman of the project, an 8th generation Arab Christian from Nazareth, whose family has suffered much in the rise of the state of Israel. He is a gentle man of great faith, and I think of him when I pray for Christian brothers and sisters in Israel.
If you have any interest in the story of Palestinian Christians, you can get a free copy of a book, Between Two Fires, by Jack Kincaid. It is not written by mainline Protestant academics with a predictable axe to grind. It’s written by an evangelical on the road in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, meeting brothers and sisters in Christ and chronicling their first hand accounts. They talk to folks with Bethlehem Bible College, Musalaha Ministries, and the Palestinian Bible Society. It doesn’t get more evangelical than this folks.
Some Palestinian Christian groups are more defiant in their approach. The Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, director of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Christian group Sabeel, said in his Christmas message:
The Incarnation took place when God took on our humanity, when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This happened in Palestine under Roman occupation. Then as now and in spite of all the hardships, we celebrate Christ’s birth, Emmanuel, God with us, giving us hope, joy, peace, and love. We are defiant. We are full of hope. We will continue to work for peace through justice. Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth Peace.
When you hear the stories of non-violent, Palestinian Christian families, you appreciate that they are indeed “between two fires.” They look to their hillsides, where angels proclaimed “peace on earth, good will to men,” and struggle to find the fulfillment of that promise.
This Christmas, pray for the peace of Jerusalem. And pray for the brothers and sisters in Christ who seek to serve the Prince of Peace in a land in turmoil.