Some people are surprised by the presence of Christians in Israel and Palestine. They think that all Arabs are Muslims and all Israelis are Jews. In reality, God has preserved his multiethnic and multicultural church in the Holy land during the last 2000 years! Let?s look at the church in Palestine and unpack the label ?Christian Palestinian Arabs? in order to better understand these Christians and their calling.
1. They Are Christians
Christian is a term full of nuance, especially in Palestine. These Christians are shaped by radically diverse histories, beliefs and traditions. Betty and Martin Bailey provide four helpful classifications for the Christian family: Eastern Orthodox , Oriental Orthodox , Catholic, and Protestant. The Orthodox branches were dominant in Palestine until the 18th century when the Greek, Armenian, and Syrian Catholic churches were founded. And thus local Catholic congregations were seen for the first time since the Crusaders. This led to a new missionary era in which Palestine witnessed the establishment of Catholic and Protestant churches. Since that time Missionaries contributed to creating a growing community of small Arab Evangelical churches and a few Messianic congregations. No doubt, God's family identity continues to diversify.This complex diversity could be unparalleled in the world and reflects the unique nature and calling of the church in Palestine ? but this diversity is not without a high cost. Most (if not all) of these church families have experienced struggles and ruptures which have divided the local family of God. But this church has the potential to communicate in unique ways to the world through both her old and new treasures.
2. They Are Palestinians
Two comments about the term Palestinian are important. First, this label is not Arabic. It is etymologically associated with the Philistines who are ethnically and culturally distinct from Palestinians and a genealogical connection can?t be established. However, their similar name, shared adversity against a group called Israel and their interest in the same land have led some to incorrectly connect the Philistines as the ancestors of the Palestinians. This misfortunate connection coupled with inaccurate Bible translations in Arabic complicated the way Palestinians view the Old Testament or their identity.Second, the label Palestinian is associated with nationalism. Admittedly, this label was used among Arabs as early as the seventh century. However, Nationalism among Palestinians was only coined in the twentieth century within the context of Colonialism and Zionism, the same ideologies that led to the establishment of modern Israel and initiated the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result of the establishment of the Modern Israel in 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees and lost their precious olive trees, vine gardens, and their ancestral homes. More than 400 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed and more than 50,000 Christians became refugees. Unfortunately, the enmity coined in this war determines the relationship between these two peoples to the present day. Israeli Jews are still looking for security and Palestinians are still seeking Justice. Neither is having peace.
3. They are Arabs
The label Arab is ancient and it may be associated with the following Old Testament figures: Joktan, Ishmael, Keturah, Cush son of Ham, Job, Jethro, Jael, Jether, Queen Sheba, the authors of Proverbs 30 and 31, and the Recabites. Interestingly, many pre-Islamic Arabic kingdoms had become Christian (for example the Nabateans, Ghassanids, and Lakhmids). Further, Philip the Arab (244-249 A.D.) was the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity. This rich Christian tradition dwindled when Islam became the central factor of determining Arabs? identity. With the upper hand, Muslims and their religious worldviews eventually dominated.
They Are Bearing Fruit
How can these Christians bring true fruit to the region? Christian Palestinian Arabs must be conversant with their biblical and Christian heritage and must be bold in their future expectations. We need to rebuild the church of the Arabs?, transcend denominational differences and incarnate our faith. Instead of mourning dwindling numbers we should focus on presenting Christ to Muslims and to Jews, formulating an Arabic gospel that highlights the love of God, especially to enemies. Our ex