How can one be a refugee in his own land? It happens in the Promised Land every day, as the Israeli government, in the name of security, continues to build new settlements that encroach on Palestinian territory, and to construct a monstrous wall that divides Palestinians not only from Israelis, but often from their own land and families.
The Freedom and Justice Study Commission of the Baptist World Alliance met to discuss the issue July 23, with several members relating personal stories and experiences from their visits to Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Speakers acknowledged the dangers of terrorism and the Israeli concern for security, but expressed deep concern at the way innocent Palestinians are made to suffer in the process.
Rosemary Kidd (right), who works with Baptists in the United Kingdom, recently spent two weeks at the Tantur Center in Bethlehem. She spoke of how Palestinians – Christians as well as Muslims – are persistently harassed and delayed at hundreds of checkpoints, making it very difficult for them to travel to work or school. Evangelical free Christians, Baptists among them, are a tiny minority in Israel, and often overlooked, with no one to stand up for them.
Kidd spoke of a 17-year-old Muslim boy she met whose father had been gunned down without a trial by Israeli soldiers. He showed her pictures, taken on his cell phone, of a bloody pool and his father’s body slumped in a taxi. Kidd showed a picture of his beautiful six-year-old sister who cries herself to sleep every night.
Though built in the name of security, the huge wall that snakes through the land often senselessly separates Palestinian communities from each other, from their hospitals, from their olive groves, and their fields, she said. There is a great feeling of oppression there, she said: “The raw injustice of the wall leaves me deeply angry.”
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, noted that Baptists in the Middle East are too small to make up their own region, and are considered a part of the European Baptist Federation. There are 27 small Baptist churches in Israel proper, he said, and 16 Baptist or Baptist-like churches in the West Bank and Gaza. The 16 Palestinian churches have officially formed a union, but cannot meet together because of travel restrictions.
Bethlehem Bible College, a non-denominational school that has several Baptists on its staff, is struggling to provide educational opportunities for Christians, he said. That can be especially difficult when students have their travel permits arbitrarily revoked. Cupit cited one Palestinian Christian who needs just one more credit to graduate, but is no longer permitted to travel to the school.
Toma Magda, of Croatia, said the experience of living through the Serbian-Croatian conflict came back to him when visiting Israel, where there were lots of people with guns and a widespread sense of uncertainty. “I met Jesus there,” he said, but not at the holy sites visited by tourists. “I met Jesus at every checkpoint,” he said, “suffering with the Palestinians.” If the Wise Men came to visit the baby Jesus today, he said, they would not be allowed through the checkpoints.
Regina Claas, who leads German Baptists, said she found it odd that the same people who had been forced into ghettos in Eastern Europe now build walls to fence others in. As a German, Class said, having lived many years with the Berlin Wall before seeing it come down, she found it interesting to see that the Israeli’s security wall is twice as tall as the Berlin Wall.
Other participants added a variety of comments related to their own experiences and the pain they feel for the Palestinian people, and for the Christians in particular. As Christians go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, they said, they should strive to meet with Palestinian Christians as well as seeing the sacred sites, that they might get a truer picture of what life is like in today’s Israel, where there is more than enough suffering to go around.