Christians take sides in Holy Land conflict

Devout travel to support Israel, Palestinians

April 15, 2006|By JOHN MURPHY | JOHN MURPHY,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

JERUSALEM -- Diana Zimmerman and Karen Lewis are Christians who say they answered a call from God to travel from their homes in the United States to live and work in the Holy Land.

But their callings have placed them on opposing sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Zimmerman, 35, a Mennonite and former nursing coordinator from Baltimore, works in a remote Palestinian village in the West Bank, where she escorts Palestinian children to school and accompanies shepherds and farmers to their fields, trying to protect them from harassment by Jewish settlers.

Lewis, 43, an evangelical Christian from Omaha, Neb., and former member of the U.S. Air Force, is a volunteer for Christian Friends of Israel in Jerusalem, where she runs a program to support Israeli soldiers serving in the West Bank. She raises money to provide troops with clothing and packages of toiletries and scripture. Every morning she recites a prayer, asking God to protect Israel's soldiers and destroy their enemies.

Zimmerman and Lewis represent two sides of the widening rift among Christians deeply moved by the endless cycle of violence in the Middle East conflict. Inspired by scripture and their interpretations of God's will, many Christians are increasingly championing either the Israeli or Palestinian cause.

The relationship between the Christian world -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant -- and Israel has always been complicated. While all Christian faiths treasure the land where the Old Testament prophets spoke and where Jesus lived and died, they hold profoundly different outlooks on the modern Jewish state.

Some evangelical Christians are sympathetic to Israel, believing it is a country on a special, God-chosen path. For some other Christians, it's a state responsible for serious wrongdoings against the Palestinians, offensive to Jesus' teachings of justice and peace.

But five years of Israeli-Palestinian violence has driven the Christian camps further apart.

"There's always been an extent of polarization within the churches in the Western world, but perhaps now the polarization has been greater with clear splits between those who are pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian," says Daniel Rossing, director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations. "It's become increasingly difficult for anyone to sit on the fence and take a truly middle path with the heightened violence and deepening hatred on all sides."

Evangelical groups

Collectively known as Christian Zionists, the evangelical groups believe Israel's existence is central to fulfilling biblical prophecies about the Second Coming and the apocalyptic "end of days." During the Palestinian uprising, when Israel seemed to lack for allies, these Christian Zionists enthusiastically came to its defense, organizing trips here when few tourists dared to visit, offering support to settlements, comforting Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks and establishing a Christian caucus among members of Israel's parliament.

At the same time, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the World Council of Churches are preaching a message of peace and nonviolence, emphasizing that Jesus called on his followers to assist the oppressed and suffering -- in this case, religious leaders say, the Palestinian people.

Once largely dedicated to documenting human rights violations and calling for an end to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, some Christian churches want to step up the pressure on Israel through a divestiture campaign to protest Israeli policies toward Palestinians, much as was done against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.

This summer the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) will debate whether to pursue its 2004 call for "a process of phased, selective divestment in multinational corporations operating in Israel," while the Anglican Church, the World Council of Churches representing about 500 million Christians, and the Church of Scotland are considering similar divestment strategies. The Roman Catholic Church, which fostered closer ties to Israel under Pope John Paul II, does not support the campaign.

At the same time, U.S. evangelist John Hagee plans to launch a Christian pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington to coordinate efforts by America's estimated 40 million evangelical Christians.

Amidst these competing efforts, the number of Christians living in Israel and the West Bank has dwindled to just over 2 percent of the population, a minority that is caught between dominant Jewish and Muslim faiths.

The most visible day-to-day evidence of the Christian split is the prevalence here of competing Christian tours.

"You will find visiting programs of Christian groups which concentrate on Israel and the Jewish people that throw in a token Palestinian person," says Rossing, "and you find other groups who come that spend the vast majority of their time with Palestinian organizations and churches and throw in a token lecture from a Jew. These are all reflections of the polarization."

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