A gathering to promote peace for Palestinian Christians?
Or a forum for bigots and anti-Semites?
Those sharply contrasting narratives emerged as a four-day conference called Christ at the Checkpoint USA drew roughly 150 evangelical Christians to this Oklahoma City suburb last week (Oct. 15-18).
The desire to offer more Americans the opportunity to hear from the Palestinian Christian community led to the U.S. version of a conference previously held at Bethlehem Bible College, south of Jerusalem in the West Bank, said the Rev. Darrell Cates, the Oklahoma conference's director.
Cates, a United Methodist minister who estimates he has made 20 trips to Israel since 1995, said that most Christians in Israel are Palestinian. Their stories are widely ignored, he said.
"The Christian community is primarily Palestinian, and they have an experience and a witness to the faith and to the gospel that is largely discarded or discounted and dismissed by most evangelical Christians in the United States," he said. "I think it's because they've never really heard it."
The organization's name alludes to the 13 major crossings manned by Israeli military or private security officers that allow 70,000 Palestinians with day work permits entry into Israel. At the most crowded inlets to the miles of concrete wall, lines begin forming as early as 3:30 a.m., though they won't open for hours.
Checkpoints are a symbol of sorts to those on both sides of the conflict. Critics of CATC say the organization's use of them politicizes their intent, no matter the mission statement.
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America criticized the conference earlier this month for inviting speakers it said were biased against Israel. The Jewish News Syndicate described the conference as part of a "concerted effort to turn Middle America away from supporting Israel."
The NGO Monitor, a nongovernmental news outlet in Jerusalem, expressed similar sentiments.
"Christ at the Checkpoint has long been a forum for bigots and anti-Semites," Yona Schiffmiller, director of the outlet's North America desk, told the Jewish News Syndicate. "Predictably, this gathering seems poised to follow in that dubious tradition."
Cates said Christ at the Checkpoint USA is not anti-Israel, though he acknowledged the complexities and passions involved.
"It's not as simple as being for or against Israel," the Oklahoma City pastor told Religion News Service. "It's a really complicated situation that takes humility and understanding and insight on how to be part of the situation in a helpful way and not just with an unconditional, unquestioning loyalty to either side."
Evangelicals from across the U.S. converged on the Reed Conference Center in Midwest City to hear speakers including Palestinian Christians, participate in workshops led by experts in human rights and law, and worship alongside those who prayed, like them, for resolution.
Jordan Buscher, 23, who hails from suburban Leawood, Kan., said she came to the conference because she cares about the future of the Middle East.
"As long as there are those willing to have conversations about peace, then that potential for peace exists," Buscher said. "I have hope."
She made her first visit to Israel in February as part of a group of 45 young adults with the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, south of Kansas City, Kan. While there, Buscher and her friend Keisha Clay, who also attended Christ at the Checkpoint USA, said they saw firsthand how Palestinians were marginalized in society.
"I thought I was going on a cool trip to walk in the footsteps of Jesus," said Clay, 33. "And I did do that, but I came away also with a desire to help give a voice to those who don't get to have one there."
On the day the conference concluded, the Trump administration announced it would abolish the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which has long overseen American ties to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and fold its operations into the newly relocated embassy in the city, The New York Times reported.
According to the Times, the move effectively downgrades American representation to the Palestinians, dealing them another blow after President Trump reversed long-standing American policy in 2017 and recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, then moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, angering Palestinians.
Though not mentioned publicly at the conference, the timing of the announcement underscored the importance for forums like this one in the U.S., Buscher said.
In its mission statement, Christ at the Checkpoint says it rejects anti-Semitism and does not condemn the Jewish people, saying that many of its supporters are Israeli Jews. "We simply wish to find a life in the entire Holy Land that is free of discrimination and injustice, where each person can live without prejudice toward their race or religion. This also means we reject theologies that lead to discrimination or privileges based on ethnicity."
But in an opinion piece published in The Oklahoman before the conference, Rabbis Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Alderstein accused Christ at the Checkpoint of "recruiting evangelicals to the Palestinian cause, largely by learning to despise the Jewish state."
"Why bring a conference to Oklahoma that preaches contempt for Jews?" the rabbis asked, concluding, "We count on the good people of Oklahoma to send them a clear message that in 2018 we need religious leaders dedicated to true peace, not theological bigots exhuming hateful ghosts of the past."
Outside the conference center on the second night of Christ at the Checkpoint, three police cruisers lined the circle drive. Inside, uniformed officers walked the corridors, occasionally stopping to talk with attendees.
Some of the speakers at the event acknowledged they had been questioned or called out for their participation at it.
The Rev. Robert E. Hayes, who retired in 2016 after 12 years as bishop of the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference, said he was "rebuked" by someone who was upset that he, as a bishop, was part of the speaker lineup.
"This week I've had some question why I should even be here," said Hayes, who now serves as bishop-in-residence at The Woodlands United Methodist Church in the Houston area. "To them, I say, 'Sometimes it's good to be the bishop.'"
In his comment, Hayes drew parallels between his experiences in the 1960s and the experiences of Palestinian Christians. Hayes recalled attending Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Texas as a young black man in 1969. He wove together bits of the black liberation theology of the Rev. James Cone with what Hayes had observed and knew from visits to Israel that began in 2012.
The parallels compel him still to speak out, he said.
"I don't have to be Palestinian to know how it feels to be treated like that, because I experienced it in another sense. It was like a page ripped from the 1960s," he said. "And I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, but I believe that wall will come down. Maybe in my grandchildren's lifetime, those checkpoints will be no more."
© 2018 Religion News Service. All rights reserved.
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