This week has seen a remarkable occurrence at the Bethlehem Bible College in Bethlehem. I am on a second visit following a packed 9 days traversing the Holy Land in February last year, as a PA (Pastoral Assistant) from Rochester diocese.
Nor am I referring to the public relations coup on Tuesday 16th for the organisers of receiving the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority to speak to the conference, or to the positive expressions of goodwill for Christian community in Palestine.
Rather it is that a largely evangelical audience gathered here, from every corner of the globe, to listen to often uncomfortable home truths, especially for the US but for all of the West, and to weigh the (to non-US citizens) arcane issues that are close to the heart of American Evangelical's theology concerning the apocalyptic role ascribed to the modern state of Israel and at the same time responding to the invitation received from Palestinian Christians to support and hear them
The significance of the visit by the PM was not political so much as the moral encouragement that it indicated for them and for Palestinians in general.
Paradoxically the Prime Minister himself alluded to the greatest source of significance, being that such an event, even in the splendour of the 5 star Intercontinental Hotel Bethlehem (turn right after the separation wall), could take place at all. Indeed what he reminded the audience of was the significance or normality.
One ordinary participant (or is that "extraordinary" given where this was taking place) was Judith Allwood from Halesowen. Now 74 she had (after doing her research) responded to the advertisement in the Baptist newspaper, and made her way, unaccompanied, on her first visit to Bethlehem in the West Bank. Judith however, being no stranger to activism has since her middle years taken part in Women Against the Mine Closures in the West Midlands and in Operation Mobilisation.
Here she was hearing for herself the country's chief Evangelical Christian theologians, visiting and engaging with both settlers at Efrat, one of 4 large illegal settlements on one hand, and visiting the also populous (11.000) refugee camp of Aida that sits behind the palatial Intercontinental.
The conference, open to local residents as well as nationals and internationals, as well as focusing on the shadow cast over the West Bank and all Palestinians by the damaging ethnic implications of the beliefs of Christian Zionism, was a forum for worship in English and Arabic, for investigating issues such as the principles of non-violence (non-violence we learned is not the same as peace but a technique for activism), and the position of Palestinian Christians within Israel, and for visits to the Checkpoint to give delegates an insight into what local people faced at 6 am in the morning.
There were Anglican voices too, including Colin Chapman (author of Whose Promised Land) giving his cogent appraisal of Islam in relation to thee West based on 17 years of first hand experience and scholarship in the middle east.
It was only a pity in this exhibition of scholarly theological endeavour, that the non-evangelical churches did not have a greater part to play.
Perhaps next year, in Jerusalem!
Actually it happened this year!! This morning (I wrote the above last night) Naim Ateek and Mitri Raheb spoke prophetically to this conference of which more will need to be said.
If you were not there, go to www.christatthecheckpoint.com and see what they all had to say. And like the Palestinian ambassador to France is saying as I write this, Boycott, Sanction and Disinvest for Justice and Truth on the road to Reconciliation (or Musalaha) as Naim Ateek said.