“Can anything good from Nazareth?”
During the Baptist World Congress in Durban, South Africa, former Baptist World Alliance President David Coffey of the United Kingdom borrowed the famous question of the disciple Nathanael.
Coffey quickly added that Baptists in Nazareth today lead him to answer the question with the affirmative.
Speaking about interfaith dialogue, peacemaking, theological education and Christian tourism, several Arab Baptists from the town of Nazareth in Israel spoke about their ministries and hopes.
Yohanna Katanacho, academic dean of Nazareth Evangelical College, spoke during a special session and afterward with EthicsDaily.com for further comments and short film segments.
“We walk on the same streets of Nazareth, seeing the same hills and the same sky that one important person 2,000 years ago saw,” Katanacho said.
He noted that Nazareth today is an Arab town – for both Muslims and Christians – with Jews living in a nearby town of Nazareth Illit (or Upper Nazareth).
Christians make up about one third of the population of Nazareth. However, he added that Baptists “are a small community” in Israel with “less than 5,000 people.”
Azar Ajaj, president of Nazareth Evangelical College, explained that Baptists and other evangelical Arabs in Israel are a trifold religious minority.
“We’re a minority within a minority within a minority,” he said. “As Arabs in this country, we’re a minority; as Christians among the Arabs, we’re a minority; as evangelicals among the Christians, we’re a minority.”
Katanacho added to Ajaj’s remarks by noting the importance of identity and how it is defined.
He explained how there was a shift from calling them “Palestinians” to calling them “Arabs.”
He compared the move to “you don’t want to use the label ‘French’ but you want to use ‘European.'”
Katanacho added that even the label “Arab” is now seen as problematic by Israeli officials since he is a Christian and Arabs are characterized as all Muslims. This has led to some labeling of them as “Arameans.”
“Identity shapes privileges,” Katanacho said. “If you are Jewish, then the doors are open.”
He explained that Palestinian-Arab villages in Israel are underdeveloped and that Jewish citizens have greater rights (such as in marriage rights for non-Israeli spouses) than Palestinian-Arab citizens in Israel.
As he explained his context, Katanacho said Baptists in Israel seek to love their neighbors and bring hope.
“I live in a very unique context and a very important one,” he said. “Whether we like it or not, this small piece of land that we live in has implications for so many different people.”
Although a religious minority, Katanacho sees the potential of Baptists to serve as peacemakers.
He added that while it will not be easy, he and others remain committed to living out their calling in their nation.
“In Israel, it is easier to make war than to make peace,” he explained. “Sometimes peacemaking is more costly than war-making.”
Calling Jesus “the greatest peacemaker in the world,” he added that peacemaking cost Jesus the cross while also talking about the importance of holding a commitment “to pursue peace with a double commitment to love and to justice.”
“If you go to a place where there’s an epidemic, you need doctors,” Katanacho said. “If you go to a place where there are lots of poor cases, you need lawyers. … But if you go to place where there is a lot of hatred, a lot of wars, you need peacemakers, you need people who are full of love, full of grace.”
For Katanacho, a key step in the process is helping Christians better understand the biblical texts.
He remains particularly concerned that many Christians read Genesis 12 inaccurately to justify political policies.
“Genesis 12 has been mistranslated,” he explained. “The text doesn’t say to Abram, ‘You shall be a blessing’ … It doesn’t say that. The text says in Hebrew, ‘Be a blessing.’ It’s a command.”
“So that has significant implications in even reading that text,” he said. “In the name of bad translation, people justify unconditional support for a group of people.”
Ajaj echoed Katanacho’s statements about the need for peacemakers who can bring hope to the nation and region.
“When we read in the Bible about Israel, for many people it’s a land that runs with milk and honey,” Ajaj said. “For those who live in the country, they’re aware it’s a country that runs with violence and revenge, with hatred and death. And it’s a land where people are losing hope.”
“As the church, we’re called to bring hope to a hopeless people,” he said.
Ajaj, Katanacho and other Baptists from Nazareth urged global Baptists to not just visit Nazareth, but to connect with Baptists while there.
They noted that Christian tourists often never meet with local Christians in Israel, instead just seeing historical sites, worshiping with other tourists in hotels and visiting with Israeli governmental officials.
The Baptists from Nazareth instead suggested that visiting Christians attend a local Baptist church on Sunday and dialogue with Christians in the country.
Echoing the reply the disciple Philip gave to Nathanael’s snarky remark about Nazareth, the Baptists from Nazareth responded, “Come and see.”
Editor’s note: Pictures from the BWA World Congress are available on EthicsDaily.com’s Pinterest page and Facebook page. Video interviews of BWA attendees have been posted to EthicsDaily.com’s Vimeo page. Kaylor’s previous reports from the Baptist World Congress are available here:
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.