Christians Seeking Coexistence in the Land of Jesus’ Birth
An interview with Alex Awad by Christie R. House
The Rev. Alex Awad is a missionary with The United Methodist Church and a Palestinian Christian serving as a pastor in the land of his birth. This interview was conducted during General Conference 2012, in Tampa, Florida.
Christie R. House
: Alex, I have written about many topics over my years reporting for The United Methodist Church, and some of those topics have been controversial. But when I publish a story calling for justice for the Palestinian people, the number of negative responses I receive is staggering. Dozens of critical emails arrive from people I have never met. The writers (who generally are not members of The UMC) tell me my story has no logical basis because there are no Palestinian people. Palestinian is an invented term, they say. So I have to ask you a question that I’m sure you’ve answered many times. You come from a family of Palestinian Christians who lived in East Jerusalem before modern Israel was created. How do you make sense of this claim that you and your family are not Palestinian?
: The rationale for denying our existence is this: If you don’t exist, then you can’t own land. Since we don’t exist as a people, therefore we cannot own land, and so the settlers are free to take our land. There is a myth going around—subscribed to by many Americans, former congressman Newt Gingrich among them—that the Palestinian people were invented by Yasser Arafat. This is a cry against history and against the reality on the ground. It is a claim that can even be dismissed by archeology.
Most of the old homes in Palestine are Palestinian homes. Most of the old mosques or churches are Palestinian mosques or churches. Obviously they are not Jewish mosques or churches. The land itself cries out: “This is Palestinian land.” That does not mean that we dismiss the desire of the Jewish people to live in this land. There is nothing wrong with their also living in this land. The problem is the radicalism that says: “This land is all ours and no other people should exist on it.” Would it not be better to say: “These people have been living in this land. We come to the land from Europe, and we will learn to live with them and share it with them.”
It is just amazing how people who have suffered so much in Europe—because of injustice, bigotry, and anti-Semitism—come from Europe and apply the same immoral behavior that was used against them. It is very hard to understand.
On the other side, there are also radical Palestinians who want the whole country. I totally disagree with them. Radicalism on either side is wrong. Coexistence is what we want. We are saying to the Israelis: Take 78 percent of historic Palestine. Leave us with only 22 percent—the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. We are willing to live with the settlers as long as the Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are willing to live under a Palestinian government.
There are many Arabs in Israel who live under an Israeli government. To have settlers in the heart of Palestine who pledge allegiance to Israel rather than to Palestine—the state in which they live—will never work. And for Israelis to take most of the country and leave the Palestinians in refugee camps—that doesn’t work either, because the number of Palestinians today is almost equal to the number of Jews in the country. You can’t pen half the population up in ethnic camps. The white South African apartheid regime
tried it and they failed. It will fail in Palestine. And I think it will fail sooner than people think.
: The United Methodist Church is opening a new office in Palestine—or, will it be in Jerusalem?
: It is going to be at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute outside Bethlehem. Actually, according to the current Israeli government, it is in Jerusalem. But it is only about a kilometer from where I live. The Rev. Kristen Brown is the United Methodist missionary assigned to the office there.
: How is your work going at the Bethlehem Bible College?
Our work has really been very fruitful for my wife, Brenda, and me. The Bible College is flourishing. We have more students, a new building, and new programs in Galilee and in the Gaza Strip. We have hosted two conferences in the last couple of years on what we call “Christ at the Checkpoint.” United Methodists have participated in these conferences. They were very successful events in which we invited people to come join Palestinians—at the checkpoints they must pass through to go from one area to another. This way, others see the reality on the ground. We visit the Israeli settlements and the Palestinian refugee camps and then study the Bible for guidance. These experiences have been life-changing for many people. This is how we contribute to the educational process so that the church knows what is happening in Israel and Palestine.
: Are you having more success at getting United Methodists to see some of the Palestinian lands and people when they come to visit the Holy Land?
Yes. I think more and more Methodists are saying: “We don’t want to see only the dead stones. We want to see the living stones. We want to really know the people of the land and the challenges they face.” And so there are people visiting us as well as visiting the Israelis—trying to hear the whole story.
: In a “60 Minutes” show that aired in April 2012, the topic was the disappearance of Palestinian Christians from the Holy Land.
Yes, this is a reality. My own family can serve as an example. Most of my brothers and sisters live either in Europe or in the United States. If you urge them to go back home, they say: “Go back to what? Look at the political situation. Look at the economic situation. We can’t find a job or otherwise progress there.” As long as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are occupied by Israel, there is not much hope for the Christian church there.
We have to change the equation. We have to say to Israel: “If you are saying publicly, internationally, in every forum that you are fair and good to the Christian people, follow your words with actions. Let Palestinian Christians who were born there and who lived there all of their lives—let them go back to their homes.” I cannot, now, live in the Holy Land as a Palestinian. I go there as a Palestinian-American with an American passport. If I go as a Palestinian, I cannot gain entry. So, the only way I can minister with The United Methodist Church in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, in the land of my birth, is with an American passport.
If I were Jewish, I would have a law to protect me: the Law of Return. Any Jew living anywhere in the world—even one who has no connections with the land at all—is welcome in the country. Jews are instantly given Israeli citizenship and they become citizens—while we, who have lived all our lives on the land and whose ancestors lived there for at least 1,400 years—are now treated as strangers in the land, as people who do not belong here.
That’s what I want to tell to the church. The church should be the conscience of humanity. The church should speak out against injustice, wherever it may be. We cannot say: “Israelis are our allies and friends, so we can ignore their injustices.” If we, as Palestinians, have done something wrong, the church should speak out and say that we are wrong. But if the Israelis also do something wrong, the church must speak out about that too. I think one of the problems is that Christians around the world really don’t know what is going on in Israel and Palestine, because the news media do not tell the whole story. For example, in the skirmishes of the last six to eight years, 100 Palestinians have been killed for every one Israeli who has been killed. But when an Israeli is killed, the media show the whole family—the man’s wife and children—whereas a Palestinian who is killed is only a statistic, if the story even makes the news at all. As a result, most Americans are not getting the real picture.
: If you are born to a Palestinian family in Bethlehem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip, what does your passport say? Though you were born in an Israeli-controlled territory, it wouldn’t say that you are Israeli.
: No, you would not be an Israeli citizen, but you could have an ID that the Israelis gave you and a magnetic card. Whenever you went through an Israeli checkpoint, you would have to use both. The eyes of the soldier on guard would see the ID card, and the magnetic card would be checked electronically.
You would be doubly checked. There are also cameras all over the place—extra surveillance that outside companies provide for Israel.
: If you were to apply for a passport, to whom would you apply?
: Well, you can apply for a Palestinian passport, but there is a catch. Israel decides who, among the Palestinians, can have a Palestinian passport. For example, if I went to the Palestinian authorities wanting a Palestinian passport, they would say, “Fill out an application.” The completed application would then have to go through the Israeli authorities. Only when the Israeli authorities gave the green light could I receive my passport. This is part of the Oslo Agreement.
: So, it is entirely possible that you can’t really travel, because you have no international ID. This would be a violation of the Declaration of Human Rights, Article 15, which says that everyone has a right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of that right.
: The Israelis do this so that Palestinians in other countries—such as Jordan or Lebanon or Syria or anywhere in the world—cannot get a Palestinian passport. Only the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and who have an ID issued by Israel can get that Palestinian passport. Otherwise, if you are a Palestinian refugee in a Lebanese refugee camp, there is no way for you to receive a Palestinian passport.
: And there is really no way to return?
: No, there is no way to go back. Israeli policy does not favor the return of refugees.
: But you do have people—such as young people coming to Bethlehem Bible School who are studying to be pastors—who are willing to stay and take up that work in Palestine?
: Yes. We offer Christian education and ministry education. We are like a liberal arts Bible college. Also we have a master’s degree program in Contextual Palestinian Theology. We now have close to 170 students in all of our branches.
: And do you still pastor a church?
: Yes. I serve as the pastor for the East Jerusalem Baptist Church, which is really an international interdenominational church. It is an English-speaking congregation.
This is the only Christian church in the Middle East that uses United Methodist hymnals!
Christie R. House is the editor of New World Outlook magazine. The Rev. Alex Awad and his wife Brenda Awad are United Methodist missionaries. Rev. Awad serves as a professor and Dean of Students at the Bethlehem Bible College and as pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church.
Photo 1: The Rev. Alex Awad and his wife, Brenda, serve as missionaries in Bethlehem and Jerusalem through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Awad is Dean of Students at Bethlehem Bible College and pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church, an international and interdenominational congregation. Brenda works in the college’s English administration office and serves as the development liaison.
Photo by: John Goodwin/ UMNS
Photo 2: The once-elegant Palestinian village of Lifta, whose inhabitants were expelled by Israelis in 1948. Today, it sits like a ghost town surrounded by freeways and apartment complexes in the middle of Jerusalem, a symbol of a past life many Palestinian refugees refuse to forget.
Photo by: Paul Jeffrey
Photo 3: Nathmeya Abdel Fattah, a woman in the Daheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem, holds the key to her home, which she lost more than 60 years ago when she was displaced by the establishment of the state of Israel.
Photo by: Paul Jeffrey
For More Information
East Jerusalem Baptist Church:
Alex Awad’s website: