Israel: House of meeting
Sitting in the Beit Al Liqa’ garden, with the late evening sun bathing the grass in a soft glow, and children making the most of the adventure playground, it is easy to forget that this is Beit Jala, in the occupied West Bank. Newcomers would not be aware, for example, that only a few years ago, Israeli missiles and shelling rocked this little Christian town, and that its residents were often under strict curfew.
This little corner of tranquility, Beit Al Liqa’ (meaning ‘House of Meeting’), is a ministry in the Bethlehem district established by Johnny Shahwan, a local Palestinian, along with his German wife Marlene. Together, they have lived and breathed their calling to the local community for over 10 years, witnessing their Christian training and community centre go from strength to strength.
According to Johnny, “the vision of the centre is to offer the Christian Palestinians in the area a wide range of services, to support the work of the local churches, and to be a light to the whole community”. Beit Al Liqa’ is registered as a charitable organization with the Palestinian Authority and is part of the alliance of evangelical churches in the Holy Land. Alongside Johnny and Marlene, there are also around a dozen staff members, and temporary international volunteers.
The main focus of the day-to-day ministry is the kindergarten and day-care centre, whose classrooms and play area takes up most of the ground floor. The centre also boasts a couple of gardens, a basketball court, conference facilities, and a cafeteria, thus becoming a place where different members of the same family come for their own activities. During the summer, Beit Al Liqa’ plays host to several different camps, often in cooperation with visiting foreign groups.
This diversity of resources is a far cry from the teatimes run by the fledgling Beit Al Liqa’ in 1996, held in a rented storefront. Johnny has seen God’s blessing on a ministry that, paradoxically, experienced its biggest period of expansion at a time when Israeli military action in Beit Jala was at a height: “Against common sense I was simply following the call of God, because he told me to start to build. In the Bible we see that God just wants people to obey, even if, in human terms, it does not make sense”. Now, in an area where the Christians feel hard-pressed and isolated, there is a refusal to adopt a defeatist mentality.
The Bethlehem district has long been the historical home for many Christian Palestinians, and in Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, Christians are still a majority of the population. The church in Palestine is quite diverse considering the small size of its members (around 2% of the population is Christian), and most Christians belong to the Orthodox or Catholic churches. There is a strong Lutheran and Anglican presence, and a growing network of evangelical believers.
The number of Christian Palestinians in the land has been steadily decreasing over the last few generations. Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Christians made up around 10% of the Palestinian population, a figure that has been declining ever since. In more recent times, emigration has increased as living conditions in the Occupied Territories worsened during the Second Intifada, and the economy was destroyed by Israeli checkpoints, closures, and land confiscation policies.
The Christian Palestinians find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, they continue to experience military occupation, Israeli colonization, and systematic discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity, yet on the other hand, they can be viewed with suspicion by those Muslims who associate Christian Palestinians with Israeli-flag waving churches in the West. Moreover, unlike the popular First Intifada, which saw Palestinians from all sections of society united in resisting the Israeli occupation, the Second Intifada has been more Islamist in rhetoric and practice.
The situation in Palestine as a whole remains bleak. The Gaza Strip post-disengagement remains occupied territory, and in the West Bank, the illegal Separation Wall continues grow, looping around to include ever-expanding settlements. Israeli leaders were honest in their intention to use the unilateral redeployment from Gaza as a means of consolidating the hold in the West Bank, and cutting off West Bank Palestinians from the religious and economic centre of Jerusalem.
Some churches in Britain and the U.S. have finally begun to match their words with action, and threaten to implement economic sanctions against the Israeli occupation. Even these tentative steps have been met with predictable outrage and hand wringing, with accusations ranging from ‘anti-Semitism’ to simply being a bit ‘unhelpful’. But while theological and political debates convulse the church in the West, Christian Palestinians like Johnny and his team are getting on with their witness.
Beit Al Liqa’, and all the other Palestinian believers, represent a light in this conflict that must burn brighter still. Johnny Shahwan believes that relationship with Christ gives a unique perspective on the most potent issues of their community; love for enemies, passion for justice, and hope in the midst of despair. “As we take steps in obedience, God is able to glorify his name here in the midst of difficulties. We are showing people that there is hope”.
Published in Evangelicals Now.