At the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, a man sitting next to me was writing in Arabic the statement that he would be reading to the council.
Adel was a Tunisian head of a nonprofit. I said hello in Arabic, and we introduced ourselves and exchanged cards.
He looked down at my World Evangelical Alliance card and then looked up. And he said firmly, “I am a Muslim. What is your position on Palestine?”
In the mind of Adel, the word “evangelical” on my business card, far from portraying a community of Christ-followers and imitators, is connected to the injustice and suffering of Palestinians, to America’s support to Israel and to U.S. wars in the Middle East.
For millions of Muslims like Adel, evangelical support for Israel and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East are stumbling blocks for the gospel.
The election of Donald Trump, anti-Muslim discourses and the Stormy Daniels episode seem to have reinforced the perception among Muslims that Islam is on a higher moral ground than the Western Christian faith. I say “reinforced” because in several Arab countries, “Christian” or “Nazarene” has always been a derogatory word.
On April 16-17, I partook in a gathering in Wheaton, Illinois, titled “The Future of American Evangelicalism.”
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share with the participants an Arab evangelical perspective. The starting point for my message to the evangelical leaders in the room, however, was not my conversation with Adel.
Between 2013 and 2017, while leading the Development and Partner Relations department at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in Beirut, Lebanon, I witnessed God’s amazing work in the Middle East and North Africa.
The witness of local churches coupled with God’s miraculous pursuit of men and women swelled, in some cases exponentially, the ranks of Lebanese evangelical churches.
My second point to the room was that many Middle Eastern ministries (refugee relief, peace-building, discipleship, medical missions and so on) and churches enjoy the great support and partnership of U.S. evangelical churches, particularly from congregations with majority Republican voters and supporters of President Trump.
And then, I shared with them of my recent encounter with Adel and of the majority Muslim perception regarding U.S. evangelicals.
Evangelical support (of many, but not by all) for U.S. Middle East policy and the actions of Israel against Palestinians are stumbling blocks to many – if not all – Muslims.
We may never know if the number is in the millions or hundreds of millions. We only have anecdotal evidence.
Last month, a friend recounted how he brought a group of Muslim leaders to a recent National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
At the breakfast, these leaders heard a clear and articulate gospel message from a particular congressman, leaving them thirsty for more. However, their thirst didn’t last long.
A few days later, the same congressman voted in favor of a congressional resolution supporting Israel. In their eyes, the gospel bore no fruit in the life of that congressman.
I would also argue that evangelical support (of many, but not of all) for U.S. Middle East policy and the actions of Israel against Palestinians are stumbling blocks here at the United Nations for staff, diplomatic missions and human rights organizations, who perceive evangelicals as being supportive of injustice and the violation of international law.
What, then, could my evangelical brothers and sisters in the U.S. do who hope to be witnesses to the love of Christ among Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples? These are some recommendations.
1. Encourage evangelical churches to “adopt” an unreached Muslim people group in a given city in the Middle East by partnering with a local ministry (indigenous when available) and include this ministry in their missions support and prayer.
2. Urge evangelicals visiting the Holy Land to fellowship with Palestinian Christians, engage with Palestinian Muslims as witnesses for Christ and spend the last three days of their trip in a hotel within the Palestinian territories.
Currently, Holy Land visits circumvent Palestinians and thus fail to convey an accurate understanding of the situation.
Holy Land pilgrimages are not benefiting the ailing Palestinian economy. Given Bethlehem’s historical importance as a Christian pilgrimage site, this is rather ironic in our current historical moment.
3. Speak up against political and community leaders promoting anti-Arab or anti-Muslim bigotry, much as we should continue speaking out as Christ-followers against anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, sexism or any other form of prejudice.
Are we, as evangelicals, ready to reject and rebuke a simplistic and extreme view of Islam that ignores Jesus’ command to love them as our neighbors, a view that is often promoted (in Lebanon and Europe as well as the U.S.) simply to garner votes?
A recent survey in the United States showed a strong correlation between “Islamophobic” attitudes, “Christian nationalism” and support for certain candidates, parties or policies.
“Overall the strongest predictors of Trump voting were the usual suspects of political identity and race followed closely by Islamophobia and Christian nationalism,” one recent article said.
4. Be cautious of dehumanizing rhetoric in media and political discourses surrounding persons of the Middle East.
This takes place not only in secular media but also in “Christian” media outlets where the facts and sociohistorical context are routinely ignored.
For example, recent headlines from the Christian Broadcasting Network declare things such as “Hamas Sacrificing Children,” “Why Gaza Clashes Aren’t Peaceful Protests but a Hamas-Inspired Death Cycle” and “Hamas Using Palestinian Masses as Newest Weapon Against Israel,” where Palestinians are portrayed as mindless masses, zombies even, with no mention of the Israeli embargo driving Palestinians in Gaza to despair and hopelessness and leading them to demonstrate.
In contrast, the Baptist World Alliance’s recent statement on Gaza said, “Even before the current medical emergency arising from the many hundreds of civilians wounded in the latest clashes, one of our Baptist leaders, who visits Gaza regularly, recently described the situation as ‘virtually no electricity, water, money – or hope.'”
5. Speak up against the “End Times Prophecy” industry.
Media platforms and churches often use End Times Prophecy to shape Christian public opinion regarding Middle East policy, especially in relation to Israel, further demonizing Muslims and Middle Easterners and promoting oftentimes profound misunderstandings of the dynamics shaping the Middle East today.
I invite you to read my post for IMES on this issue from May 2017.
As of March 30, harrowing photos and videos emerged of Israeli snipers shooting unarmed Palestinian demonstrators. In one video, we hear the soldiers rejoicing at the death of a Palestinian.
Israeli snipers shot and killed or maimed women, children, reporters, doctors and medical rescue teams and even wheelchair-bound demonstrators.
The March of Return demonstrators have been falsely accused of violence and even of wanting to sacrifice their children for the sake of a public relations coup.
If we want to pray and show compassion, if we want to honor the commandment to love our neighbor, should we not attempt to see things how the peoples of the Middle East, particularly the Palestinians in the current situation, see them?
Shouldn’t our churches have better engagement of the region and of Muslim communities nearby and far away? Shouldn’t we speak out against those things that profoundly go against our values but are nevertheless attributed to us – lest we be like the man who sought to be justified when he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
Wissam al-Saliby currently serves as advocacy officer of the World Evangelical Alliance based in Geneva, Switzerland. He formerly served as ABTS development and partner relations manager. A version of this article first appeared on the IMES blog. It is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @walsaliby.
Wissam al-Saliby is a UN Geneva Advocacy Officer with the World Evangelical Alliance.