• FEATURES \ May 09, 2002
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    Prayer is the only solution to Middle East crisis
Prayer is the only solution to Middle East crisis LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--The only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies not in politics but rather in the gospel message, a group of theologians said at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary May 1.

Four men with various views on end-times theology gathered at the Louisville, Ky., campus as part of the "Whose Holy Land? An Evangelical Conversation on Israel, the Church and the Battle for Palestine" forum. It was sponsored by the seminary's Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement.

While the men disagreed on where present-day Israel fits into biblical prophecy, they agreed that Christians around the world must pray for peace and must model forgiveness for both sides in the conflict.

"This is not a situation that is going to be resolved [by] anything short of the intervention of God," said Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. "I know the arguments very well on both sides."

Joining Patterson on the panel were R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Seminary; Craig Blaising, executive vice president and provost at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas; and Richard Gaffin, professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Russell Moore, instructor of Christian theology at Southern Seminary, served as moderator. Moore is also the executive director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute.

Mohler represented a premillenial view of end-times theology, while Gaffin held to an amillenial position. Blaising and Patterson represented various forms of dispensationalism.

Patterson, who has a Palestinian brother, has visited the Middle East several times. During the panel discussion he told how he has met and witnessed to three Israeli prime ministers -- including current leader Ariel Sharon -- as well as to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Patterson said both sides of the conflict are guilty of terrorism.

"Israel accuses the Palestinians of terrorism," he said. "They [Palestinians] are guilty. But it takes one to know one."

Blaising cautioned Christians against blind support for Israel. He and the other panelists agreed that Israel should be held morally accountable.

"It's important for American evangelicals to not be caught up in the euphoria of Zionism but [to realize] there are very difficult issues in the state of Israel going on today," he said.

Mohler said evangelism to both Israelis and Palestinians must be a priority. "There is no earthly means of undoing this problem," he said. "Like in Northern Ireland ... the problems are so deeply involved that there is no political solution possible."

Such complicated problems, he added, should serve as a catalyst for the preaching of the gospel.

"[The] greatest opportunity for the Christian church is to bear witness to the reconciliation that is achieved in the redemption brought by Jesus Christ," he said.

Mohler, Patterson and Blaising all agreed that America must defend Israel while holding it morally accountable.

While a supporter of Israel, Patterson nonetheless said Sharon and the Israeli government must be urged to enact improvements within the country. One of those, he said, should be the allowance of true religious liberty.

"We have to say to the Israelis in no uncertain terms, 'If you're serious about democracy and you're serious about freedom, then begin with the most basic of all human freedoms -- religious liberty.'"

Patterson said Messianic Jews -- Jews who embrace Christianity -- are persecuted for their faith. He said he has personally challenged Sharon to make improvements in the arena of freedom.

"[R]eligious liberty is not the right to practice [the religion] in which you were born. It's the right to do what we're doing today -- it's the right of the open marketplace of discussion. That's the only real religious liberty in the world.

"That's what I have said to Prime Minister Sharon in exactly those terms -- only I said it a little more strongly. Interestingly enough, he quieted other evangelicals in the room who were afraid I was pushing too far and he said, 'I want to hear this. He makes sense.' So there is hope there."

The Israelis also must be encouraged to rise above hatred and revenge, Patterson asserted.

"They must work at forgiveness," he said. "But we can't ask them to [forgive] if we don't model it first and forgive people who are unkind and uncharitable toward us."

Likewise, the Palestinians must stop killing civilians through suicide bombings. "If you've got to have a war -- God forbid -- do it with combatants," Patterson said.

Mohler said the Palestinians are in need of a Winston Churchill-type leader.

"Politically speaking, the greatest need of the hour is for Palestinian leadership who will genuinely contend for justice and peace," Mohler said, "and who will understand the necessity of creating a relationship with Israel that does not demand its abolition."

Mohler and Patterson said the situation is complicated for many reasons, including the fact that present-day Israel was founded in 1948 by displacing Palestinians already living on the land. Israel's founding came on the heels of the Holocaust.

"The international community agreed in the aftermath of World War II that justice required a Jewish homeland and the right of Jews to establish a Jewish state," Mohler said. "... It came by United Nations action. That was a demand of justice, but when that justice was achieved, it created an injustice for those who were already there."

Patterson said the Palestinians should have had the opportunity to resettle. "I will have to say this for the Israelis -- they've been good in many ways to the Palestinians and have worked to help them in certain ways even while in other ways they've been very unfair to them," he said.

Christians, Mohler said, must pray for peace and for the safety of believers in the region.

"Our concern must be for the brothers and sisters in Christ," he said. "The West Bank has more Christians than you're likely to find in the official borders of Israel. ... They do not have a voice [and] we must be that voice. But that voice is for the sake of the gospel."