“Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” (Luke 2:15)
A striking mural marks the entrance way inside the Bethlehem Bible College in Palestine. It shows the shepherds in the fields with the angel announcing the birth of the baby Jesus.
“Don’t be afraid,” the angel says in Luke 2, “For I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
Dr. Alex Awad tells our group of leaders from Mennonite Church USA that the college was started 35 years ago because the Palestinian churches were sending young leaders outside the country for training and many of them never came back. Mennonite organizations, including Mennonite Central Committee, have been strong supporters of the college.
Dr. Awad is urging church leaders to come and see what has happened in Palestine since 1948. “What we should have learned from the Holocaust,” he says, “Is not to inflict injustice on another group of people, but to ensure justice for all people.”
The impact of Christian Zionism and the unbridled support of the state of Israel in the Christian evangelical community in North America has had a profoundly impacted the Christian church in Palestine. “We don’t want the church to die in the place where the church was born,” Dr. Awad tells us.
Today, 60,000 Arab Christians remain in Palestine and Israel, along with 15,000 messianic Jews and thousands of other immigrant Christians. Every denomination wants a congregation in the Holy Land, says Dr. Awad, but the Mennonites and Methodists have chosen instead to support existing churches.
The war and occupation has resulted in many Christians leaving Palestine. “Under the current economic and political situation, it is impossible to keep Christians in Palestine,” Dr. Awad said.
But there is hope. Dr. Awad believes that Christian Zionism is losing ground among evangelical Christians around the world. He believes that more Christians are coming to understand that the New Testament has brought a new covenant where God’s love through Jesus is not restricted to a particular people in a particular place but is extended to all people in all places for all time.
This is an enlargement theology, he says. Everyone has equal access to God’s promises in the New Testament, including Palestinian Christians.
“To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” the angel told the shepherds. How can the church in North America be part of this good news for churches in Palestine as they share God’s joy with others?
Ron Byler is executive director of Mennonite Central Committee U.S.