Last weekend, Palestinian Authority (P.A.) officials told the leadership of First Baptist church in Bethlehem, a city under P.A. control, that they don’t have the authority to function as a religious institution. Though the congregation can still gather to pray, this decision means that legal paperwork – birth, wedding, and death certificates – generated by the church won’t be recognized.
This isn’t the first time the church has been declared illegitimate, First Baptist head pastor Rev. Naim Khoury said, adding that he believes the church’s work toward unity between Jewish and Arab people has made them a target by the P.A.
The irony, Steven [assistant pastor at First Baptist] said, is that the PA’s announcement comes right after the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference. This conference, which took place from March 5 through March 9, 2012 was a gathering of approximately 600 Evangelical Protestants from across the globe (mostly from the United States) to discuss the theology of Christian Zionism, which some Evangelicals believe increases the prospect of violence in the Middle East and gives support to Israeli policies that they do not like.
During the opening night of the conference, Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad told the assembly that his government respected the rights of Christians. Palestinians celebrate religious holidays together, PA officials attend Christmas celebrations and even attend Midnight Mass for Christmas, Fayyad said.
“This is what it means to be a Palestinian,” Fayyad said, adding that the PA feels a deep sense of responsibility for the holy places and will allow unfettered access to places of spiritual significance in areas under its control.
Nevertheless, there is a sense among Christians in Bethlehem that anti-Christian animus has gotten worse in the city over the past few years, Khoury said. “People are always telling them, ‘Convert to Islam. Convert to Islam. It’s the true and right religion.’”
The Palestinian Authority saying one thing on an international stage and doing another thing to locals of other faiths? Forgive us if we aren’t surprised.