Earlier this week a report came out via blogs and social media that Dr. Naim Khoury, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, was told by the Palestinian Authority (PA) “to shut the doors–they were closing down the church” and that the PA no longer recognized the church as legitimate. The report was issued by Russ Resnik, the executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations (UMJC). Many pro-Israeli organizations and individuals quickly took it to Twitter, Facebook and personal blogs to try to make a connection between what happened and the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference, which just took place last week in Bethlehem. They also blamed the PA’s actions on the fact that Dr. Khoury is pro-Israel and takes a Christian Zionist stance in his theology, and because of these beliefs his church was being “shut down”. There was only one problem with Mr. Resnik’s report. It was factually wrong.
Upon hearing the news, other local Evangelical leaders among the Palestinian church reached out to Dr. Khoury and his family to hear what had happened. The Khoury family seemed surprised at the report that was being generated by interviews with their son, Steven Khoury, currently in the USA, and denied that the church was “shut down.” Mr. Resnik, to his credit, has now issued a public correction stating “after a further conversation with Pastor Steven Khoury” the statement that the “doors were being shut” by the PA was “not accurate”. What happen is that the PA told Dr. Khoury that his church is not officially recognized by the government or licensed to issue marriage documents, which is by no means new news. This has nothing to do with the church being “pro-Israel.” Nevertheless, it still made it to some pro-Israel websites.
This brings up a bigger issue among Evangelical churches in the Palestinian Territories: official recognition by the PA. Unlike traditional churches like the Greek Orthodox and Catholics, Evangelical churches in the Palestinian Territories are not officially recognized and therefore things like marriage documents are not considered legitimate by government authorities. They have the freedom to worship, but are not “official.” This goes back all the way to the Ottoman Empire days and then the British mandate, and only the thirteen churches that were recognized back then continue to have recognition in Palestine, Jordan and Israel. (See page 27 of the following document http://www.diyar.ps/media/documents/pal_chr_booklet.pdf). This is not limited to the Palestinian Authority; Evangelical churches are also not recognized by the State of Israel.
For the last few years, there have been many discussions between Evangelical church leaders, including those who organized and spoke at the Christ at the Checkpoint, and officials from the PA. The recognition does not depend entirely on the PA, and the input of the already recognized churches is as equally important. In addition, the congregational nature of the Evangelical churches and the absence of a recognized hierarchy complicate things. This is why efforts by Christ at the Checkpoint to highlight the Evangelical Palestinian church are so important. Having Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad come for the second time in as many conferences to speak and to see first hand what the Bethlehem Bible College and local churches are doing helps, not hinders, the churches efforts for recognition. In addition, the issue of seeking recognition for Evangelical churches in Palestine and in Israel was openly discussed during the conference.
Critics of the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference pointed out the timing as being ironic coming only days after the conference and Dr. Fayyad’s presence there. In reality, the timing of these ongoing attacks is what is ironic.
So while some would want you to believe that this is about a pro-Israel church being persecuted by the PA, the facts point to a greater struggle for recognition for the Evangelical Palestinian church as a whole. So rather than spending time using this situation for ideological purposes, we should encourage and help not only the church in Palestine, but the Palestinian Authority as they continue to seek to build conditions for a free and democratic Palestine. We should also continue to seek and encourage equal freedoms and recognition for Evangelicals and other religious minorities in Israel. Evangelical congregations and non-orthodox Jews long for recognition in some of the same areas. Unfortunately, Evangelicals are not fairing better in Israel.
The Palestinian Authority is refusing to renew the official registration papers of the First Baptist Church of Bethlehem, apparently due in part to its reluctance to join other Palestinian institutions in unfairly criticizing Israel, but Church sources confirmed to ICEJ News on Thursday that they are still holding their regular weekly prayer and worship services and no PA officials have been to the church facility to shut down their operations, contrary to some media reports this week. Still, the denial of a renewed registration could have serious repercussions for the Evangelical congregation in future. Senior Pastor Naim Khoury had applied recently for a periodic renewal of the church's official registration, but was informed that it had been denied. Such renewals are normally routine, and no official reasons were given for the denial. If left to stand, the result could mean the church cannot register births, marriages and deaths of its congregants. This could prove problematic as the PA requires that residents indicate affiliation with a certain religion on identification papers and other civil documents. No other Evangelical churches or institutions are encountering such problems at present, and thus the suspicion is falling on the way First Baptist Church of Bethlehem has stood for peaceful relations between Israelis and Palestinians over the years. The denial came the week after PA prime minister Salaam Fayyad appeared at a conference hosted by local Evangelical Arab Christians in Bethlehem and assured that the Palestinian Authority welcomes all Christians and does not discriminate against them