It’s time to talk about Palestinian Evangelicals

Pastor Johnny Shahawan (right) meeting with Yehuda Glick in a photo that Glick shared on facebook

Jack Munayer

Mondoweiss  /  April 12, 2022

Palestinian Christians are being used to advance Israel’s colonialist goals. Palestinian Evangelical leadership must be held accountable for the role they are playing.

A month ago, the Palestinian Authority shut the Beit Al-Liqa community center in Beit Jala and arrested the director and pastor Johnny Shahawan. The arrest followed a social media post by notorious former MK Yehuda Glick as he visited the center. Glick is perhaps most infamous for his activism around the Temple Mount and endangering the agreed status quo. Palestinians everywhere are outraged that such a religious extremist was associated with this Christian community center and this has remained a hot topic ever since. Many are concerned that Glick has succeeded in sowing division between Christians and Muslims and has been using Palestinian Christians for his own Zionist advocacy purposes.

Beit Al-Liqa issued a statement where they were surprised by the incident and denied any connection with Glick and stated that he was a stranger who walked in with the group and took a photo. Although the PA’s investigation has not been completed, many Palestinians have found this statement unconvincing in light of both the photo, Pastor Johnny’s previous engagement with Christian Zionists and a follow-up social media post by Glick himself where he claimed he spoke to the group after Johnny. Glick has obviously continued to build on this incident with his own audience.

Another reason that many Palestinians will find these claims unconvincing is the growing reputation that the Beit Al-Liqa center discriminates against Muslim families who want to use the community center’s playground. T, a Palestinian Muslim woman and a close friend who lives in Beit Jala raised this issue with my wife and I just over a month ago when we were invited over for a visit. I asked her to share her story:

“I planned to take my children and visit Beit al-Liqa with my friend (who is Christian) and her children. I arrived ten minutes early and tried to enter the center. I went to the secretary and she asked me what my name was. They told me that the place was full and only people with yearly membership could enter. Of course, with my dress it is clear that I am Muslim. I asked her politely to register us for the yearly membership sign up and she replied that it was too difficult due to the large number of members. 

 I left and called my friend, explaining what happened. She then arrived, entered and immediately booked a membership for her family. I went back in and said ‘Shame, you reject me because I am a Muslim and my friend is a Christian’. This is not the first time I am rejected from this place. I had to return home with my children with shame. The shame that we were judged because of our religion. My children deserve the same as any other child. I am proud to say that I have Christian and Jewish friends, and I do not differentiate between us. We are all human.”

When I asked T how she felt about the recent developments she replied:

“My feeling about the manager’s imprisonment is excitement and joy, and I think that’s the least that can be done. A person that judges children according to their religion is the peak of humiliation, low etiquette and respect for human beings. I could write a hundred words to describe how I felt when my children and I were refused entry because of our Muslim religion. As for the place, I think our children need a place with a high and respectable level of management; in the hope that they will open the place with a new management of different religions so that all our children will have places to play and have fun. It is not their fault that they are paying the price for the stupidity of a person who has not respected humanity.”

The Palestinian Evangelical leadership’s response has been overwhelmingly disappointing and in the few incidents where something public has been said it has been in blind support of Pastor Johnny, even as early as a day after the incident took place. It is also incredibly ironic that in light of the aforementioned story, the President of the Federation of Evangelical Christians in the Holy Land is claiming that his detention “has the smell of a discriminatory and abusive act against a man of the cloth”

This leads me to the central point of this article — It’s time to talk about Palestinian Evangelical leaders. This incident at Beit Al-Liqa is important but it reveals a deeper systemic problem: Christian Zionist and other Israeli actors are using the Palestinian Christians (and specifically the Evangelicals) for their own colonial purposes, and there is a complete absence of accountability from the leadership on this matter. Palestinian Christians are prime targets for Zionist advocates, as in the Western Evangelical mind they retain the Orientalist intrigue of an Arab outsider while at the same time feeling familiar due to their Christian identity. They are effective in reassuring of Israel’s divine destiny, eliminating any concern about the injustices being committed against the Palestinians and reinforcing Islamophobic narratives. The best example of this is the disgraced Greek Orthodox priest Gabriel Naddaf who attempted to recruit Palestinian Christians into the Israeli army. This method is typical of colonial and settler colonial powers, that will use resources and divide-and-conquer tactics to maintain their dominance and power.

Evangelical Palestinians in the West Bank are even more of a target due to the major support that Evangelical Americans have for Israel. When Evangelical Palestinians have spoken up (like the Christ at the Checkpoint conference), this has been a major threat to the lies that Christian Zionists peddle. Therefore, efforts have been made to influence, recruit and silence other Evangelical leaders. The first example of this are the Epicenter events organized by the Joshua Fund which aim to “Bless Israel and its neighbours in the name of Jesus”. Joel Rosenberg, the founder of this initiative, an ardent Christian Zionist, supporter of Israel and former advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu has successfully built his influence with prominent Palestinian Evangelical pastors by using two resources: Money and recognition. In the link above, one can see the wide array of funding that has been provided for these pastors. An annual gala (all paid for) has also been organized by Rosenberg where Evangelical Palestinians from all over the land are invited to attend. 

This type of material display lobbies many; providing for further opportunities of influence and infiltration. Many of these pastors have been given a public platform to share their stories and be well received by a Western audience. Palestinians are used to being sidelined and outright rejected by Western Christians and I can only guess that this scratches a certain itch. Many young Palestinian Christians are outraged by how easily some of their leaders fall into such an obvious trap, especially as these colonial tricks are well known and so blatantly obvious. For those with a strong enough stomach, you can watch the videos from 2018 and 2017 where leaders of Palestinian Evangelical churches attempt to entertain and please the Christian Zionist audience. Most disturbingly, Rev. Munir Kakish, the Chairman of Council of Local Evangelical Churches in Palestine is a main speaker in both conferences. 

What is the chairman of this council doing with a former advisor of Netanyahu? Can he really participate in such events without succumbing to Zionist influences? Perhaps one of the most telling answers to these questions was the recent inclusion of Rev. Naim Khoury into the council under this very chairman. Rev. Khoury is infamous in Palestine for his collaboration with Christian Zionists, Islamophobia and was recently chosen to be number 26 on the Israeli Allies Foundation top 50 supporters of Israel. This horrifying inclusion took place after Rev. Kakish controversially violated the internal rules of council elections and bypassed voters from Gaza to win his seat. While it is doubtful that pastors like Shahawan and Kakish are actually Zionist, it is clear that they are willing to abandon morality and betray their own constituencies in the pursuit of material benefits and power. 

On the other side of the Separation Wall, Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem do not fare better. For example, in 2016 a conference called the 822 Gathering took place in Jerusalem with the main theme of “reconciling” the sons of Isaac to the sons of Ishmael. Many Palestinian pastors and leaders were present, especially from the Galilee. In reality, the main theme was an attempt to tame and subjugate the Palestinians as they were herded on and off the stage for the entertainment of the audience while the Israeli national anthem blared continuously as if to brainwash the Palestinians.  Palestinian leaders were also called on stages to make Zionist “covenants”. One of these was regarding the Temple Mount, where Jerusalem-based pastor Bassem Adranly declared the United Nations to be “tyrants” for a UNESCO resolution regarding Israel’s conduct around the holy site. Later on in the conference, perhaps the most disturbing scene took place when his wife Jesra stepped on stage with an Israeli woman and they claimed to represent Hagar and Sarah from Genesis. She declared:

“Hagar servant of Sarah. Hagar remember your place….Will you accept the position that it is, as a servant? And I am here to say to my Jewish brothers and sisters we accept this place. We accept this place that you saw yesterday when we lifted up the arms of our Jewish brothers carrying the crown, we accept the place as a wife in a marriage relationship, it’s not the place of disgrace, it’s the place of the helpmate, the support, the partner, the edifier, we accept this place.”

Unlike the examples used from the West Bank, it seems that these leaders genuinely embrace their servant status and role in supporting Israel. This requires much more consideration, as corruption and opportunism are easier to mitigate, but embracing the ideology of your oppressor is something else entirely. While most Evangelical leaders do not agree with these positions, it is also clear that they have allowed these issues to go unchallenged. Christian Zionist movements are causing serious harm and the issue is being neglected. 

It is time to talk about Evangelical Palestinians because one can clearly see a concentrated effort by pro-Israel actors to recruit, influence and divide Evangelical Palestinians. These efforts have overall gone under the radar or have been tolerated. The recent events at Beit al-Liqa seem to be a turning point on this matter.

This leads me to my final concluding points. Firstly, how are those that want to advocate for Palestinian rights going to deal with these pro-Israel initiatives that recruit Evangelical Palestinians? Regardless of their motivation, it is clearly successful in concealing the injustices taking place in the land. Isolating and ostracizing Evangelical Palestinians will only support the Zionist narratives and cannot be the solution. Secondly, how are Palestinians and Palestinian Christians more specifically going to address the lack of moral leadership and accountability of the Evangelical leaders?

Young Palestinian Christians have already called for their leaders and community to confront anti-Muslim attitudes, but it seems that it has fallen on deaf ears. No serious and open conversation is taking place within the Evangelical circles about this. If Palestinians are ever to truly rise against the many obstacles we face, it will have to be united. The consequences of such foolish behavior are not easily remedied and continue to distract and divide us. One can only hope that the incident at Beit al-Liqa will cause some serious self-reflection and positive change within the community.

Jack Munayer was born and raised in Jerusalem to a British mother and Palestinian Christian-citizen of Israel father