Baptist World Alliance’s Freedom and Justice Commission participants spoke candidly about what they had experience in visits to the West Bank, voiced deep concern about the treatment of Palestinians and discussed the need to address the problem of Christian Zionism during the BWA’s annual meeting held this year in Prague, Czech Republic.
“Bethlehem has become a ghetto,” said Rosemary Kidd, a British Baptist minister. “The raw injustice of that wall has left me deeply angry.”
Speaking about the concrete barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem, Kidd said that Palestinians are “humiliated by the guards as they go through. They have to do fingerprinting. And if fingerprinting doesn’t immediately match their documents, they are delayed.”
“I’ve watched people gradually sort of shriveling,” Kidd told participants. “It’s all a very humiliating experience.”
Noting that Bethlehem residents never know what will happen next and never feel safe, she said, “Israelis are obviously attempting to control terrorism. You can understand that…. But they are doing it in a way that is an incursion into the human rights of the whole population.”
Kidd said that Baptists represent a tiny minority within the Christian community, which is itself a tiny minority among Muslims and Jews.
“Baptists of Bethlehem are very beleaguered,” she reported. “Baptist Christians feel isolated and forgotten.”
The birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem once had a large thriving Christian community. The majority of residents are now Palestinians.
Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, called the situation there “a huge injustice” and said that Baptists needed to address it.
“One thing I feel we can do as the BWA is actually to question this Christian Zionism, which is acting as such an ally of Israel in oppressing the Palestinians,” said Peck, who urged the BWA to debate the issue that “we are afraid to tackle.”
Peck led a five-person European Baptist delegation to the West Bank in February. While no member of the group questioned Israel’s right to exist and protect itself, Peck said, “To be in Bethlehem meant to experience a huge sense of injustice towards the Palestinian community, some of whom are our Christian and Baptist brothers and sisters.”
The EBF report on the visit said: “Like the prophets of old, we found our hearts stirred with indignation at the degrading treatment of Palestinians, the majority of whom are peace-loving and have been on the land for many generations.”
The European Baptists rejected statements by American Christians who said Palestinian Christians were part of the problem and should leave their land. One Palestinian reported that his family had lived in the region for 20 generations.
“We mustn’t demonize the whole of the state of Israel,” cautioned Peck in Prague. “People of peace live in all communities.”
He reported that the 20 Baptist churches in Israel were Arab Baptist churches and that most of the 16 evangelical churches in the West Bank were Baptist.
Peck urged global Baptists to support Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational Christian school with a Baptist principal.
Victor Rembeth, an Indonesian Baptist leader, said the Christian Zionism was a multi-billion dollar industry in which Christians who tour Israel see only part of the overall picture and miss the suffering “inside the walls of Israel.”
Stefan Stiegler, a German Baptist scholar, said that if Baptists who travel to Israel would meet Palestinian Baptists and not just visit the holy places, then Baptist visitors would get a truer picture of the situation. He also said that Baptists need to do more theological work on the biblical issues related to the promise of land to the Jews.
In addition to a lengthy discussion about the West Bank, Baptists heard a report from Elijah Brown about the situation in Darfur.
There is a “sense that international attention on Darfur is beginning to wane and beginning to shift to other areas. And that’s quite unfortunate because the reality is that the situation in Darfur has not improved at all. It has not changed that much,” said Brown, who recently completed his dissertation on the state of the church in Sudan.
Brown advocated support for Sudan’s Gideon Theological College, which trains pastors and accepts both men and women as students.
During the war in southern Sudan, the army used the school’s library as a prison. When the army left, it shot up the water tanks and took everything it could with them, he said. The “state of college is in significant disrepair.”
Given the upcoming Olympics in Beijing and China’s role in Sudan, Brown urged participants to write letters of concern about the situation in Darfur to their Chinese embassies before the world games begin.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and attended the BWA gathering in Prague.