Written by Dr. Derek Cooper
Monday, 14 May 2012 00:00
Today marks the sixty-fourth anniversary of the state of Israel. Despite its humble beginnings on May 14, 1948, the country has the distinction of maintaining one of the highest life expectancies in the world as well as boasting the highest standard of living in the Middle East. The country also features one of the most impressive military bodies in the world.
But for many Christians, the allure of the state of Israel lies neither in its good living conditions nor in its state-of-the-art medical care. Instead, it has to do with its elevated status in biblical history as well as its predicted role in the future of biblical prophecy. Indeed, many Christians – particularly American evangelicals – believe that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was not just a humane response among the United Nations to the Jewish people after the horrors of the Holocaust; it was a veritable act of God in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
This mindset finds expression in the Proclamation of the Third International Christian Zionist Congress held in Jerusalem in 1996. “The Land of Israel,” the Christian Zionist body decreed, “has been given to the Jewish People by God as an everlasting possession by an eternal covenant. The Jewish People have the absolute right to possess and dwell in the Land, including Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the Golan.”
The assumption of this proclamation, of course, is that the land of Judea, Samaria, Gaza, and the Golan – an area that has historically been called Palestine – does not belong to those who have inhabited it for the past thousands of years.
So whose land is it: the Israeli’s or the Palestinian’s?
Despite the great importance of this question – which deserves careful and diligent consideration from people and groups who know much more about this situation than I do – I would like reflect on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from a different perspective, namely, from a Christian pragmatic one.
Without commenting on the theological basis for or against Israel’s existence as a state, the consequences of its presence in the Middle East have resulted in one apparent fact: There is now a substantially lower percentage of Christians living in this land than there was a half-century ago. Stated more directly, the Christian population in this, ironically, highly visibly part of the world is being extinguished right in front of our eyes.
(Again, ironically, to make up for the hemorrhaging of the Christian populace in the Middle East, the international church is sending more foreign missionaries there than perhaps ever before rather than supporting indigenous Palestinian Christians.)
Here are some statistics: As late as 1947, a year before the formation of the state of Israel, Christians accounted for 20% of the population in the Holy Land. Following the declaration of Israel as a Jewish state in 1948, many Christians were pushed out by Jewish armies or settlers and/or fled. Some were killed. Archbishop Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Christian whom I was honored to meet on a recent trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories with students in the LEAD MDiv program at Biblical Seminary, chronicles the destruction of his entire village in the late 1940s in his book Blood Brothers.
On our trip, we experienced the difficulties of life as a Palestinian Christian firsthand during a visit to a farm in the Bethlehem area – the owners of which, by the way, have been Christians for generations. Because the Israeli government wants to take control of this land and use it to make more (illegal) Jewish settlements, they have cut off the owner’s water and electricity. After touring the farm for about two hours and learning about the injustices the family has experienced, a group of us returned on foot to our bus, which had to park far away due to the barricade the Israeli government had erected two decades before. To our surprise, we were met by four Israeli soldiers. Although as American tourists we had nothing to be afraid of, the locals in the area had much to fear. As a local Christian later remarked to me about this incident, “This is just another day in the life of a Palestinian. We are punished for no other reason than being alive.”
Due to these types of tactics, the Christian population in Palestine and the Occupied Territories has shrunk to a little more than 1%. In fact, about 600,000 Palestinian Christians alone have left their homeland to live in Chile, while others are scattered throughout many other countries.
As for the state of Israel, the Christian population has also diminished over the years. There are actually more Christians from Jerusalem living in Sydney, Australia than there are living in Jerusalem, Israel. What’s more, the Christian population in Israel has shrunk each decade since Israel was formed as a country. In 1948, for instance, Christians made up about 7% of the population there (but represented 20% of the total population in the vicinity). Today it is a little more than 1%. And Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, has seen an 85% reduction of Christians since the formation of Israel.
So, what are we as Christians to do with the apparent fact that the Christian population continues to die out in the land where Christianity was birthed?
Some claim the reason for this en masse fleeing on the part of indigenous Christians is due to conflicts with Muslims. The statistics I have seen, however, reveal nothing of the sort. Actually, a recent survey conducted by the Palestinian Centre for research and Cultural Dialogue discovered that “78 per cent of Christians who live in Bethlehem say the emigration is because of Israeli blockade.”
These statistics align with anecdotes I have heard personally from Palestinian Christians in the Bethlehem area. “The conflict has nothing to do,” one Palestinian Christian woman said to me, “with Christians versus Muslims. It is about Israeli’s taking our land, erecting a giant wall, humiliating us at check points, and forcing us to flee our homeland.”
Perhaps worst of all, one Christian and Islamist scholar asserts that the Christian population in this part of the world contains “no sign of reversal.”
Now let’s get things straight: I am neither for nor against the nation of Israel. If anything, I have discovered the people of Israel to be kind and gracious. (Of course, I have been the recipient of this kindness as an American tourist.) At the same time, I am decidedly in support of Christians everywhere in the world, the Holy Land included. Can I, as a Christian, act any differently?
But regardless of my personal opinions about whether one should or should not support the state of Israel, the fact remains: The indigenous church in Palestine is perilously close to extinction. As fellow believers, what is our role in this situation?
In the preamble to the Third International Christian Zionist Congress I cited above, one of the primary motivations of the congress was “to demonstrate Christian concern for Israel and the Jewish People.”
But who will demonstrate “Christian concern” for Palestine and the local Christian people living there?
Derek Cooper is assistant professor of biblical studies and historical theology at Biblical, where he directs the LEAD MDiv program and co-directs the DMin program. His most recent book is entitled Thomas Manton: A Guided Tour of the Life and Thought of a Puritan Pastor: http://www.amazon.com/Thomas-Manton-Thought-Puritan-Publishing/dp/1596382139/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1. See his faculty page at: http://www.biblical.edu/index.php/derek-cooper.
 Elias Chacour, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids: Chosen, 2003).
 Heather Sharkey, “Middle Eastern and North African Christianity,” in Introducing World Christian History, ed. Charles Farhadian (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 14.
 David Thomas, “Arab Christianity,” in The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity, ed. Ken Parry (Oxford: Wiley-Blacwell, 2010), 21.