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Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

From the sidelines, some Christians in US strive to be peacemakers as Israel-Hamas war continues

At Northwood Church in Keller, Texas, senior global pastor Bob Roberts has heard from congregants wrestling with the Israel-Hamas war and the heightened emotions it has unleashed across the United States. Some call for more support for Israel. Others want the same for Palestinians.

“Our response is that no war is good,” said Roberts, who founded the Dallas-area church in 1985. “Our goal is not to bring everybody to the same viewpoint; it’s to help them understand that God created every person in the image of God, that they all have that spark of divinity and should have the opportunity of life.”

As the latest Israel-Hamas war threatens to spawn wider global discord, frustrations over the toll of the conflict and growing numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties are leaving Israel increasingly isolated.

But while some among the nation’s approximately 210 million Christians strongly support one side or the other, many see themselves caught in the middle as the war strains interfaith relations, especially those between Jewish and Muslim communities, and incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia rise.

“We’re kind of on the sidelines,” Chris Hall, minister of missions for Houston Northwest Church in Texas, said at a recent interfaith gathering. With tensions among groups increasingly fragile, Hall said, “how I respond to my neighbor now has more depth than it has in years past.”

Heather Hall, a Christian from Cypress, talks with Shanaz Ghani, a Muslim, as friends of different faiths gather for iftar at Shariq Ghani's home in Richmond, Texas, on April 2, 2024.

Some Christian faith leaders say it’s more important than ever to shift from being bystanders into more active roles as arbiters.

“Christians ought to be right in the middle of it,” said Roberts, who is also co-founder of Texas-based interfaith organization Multi-Faith Neighbors Network. “It’s an opportunity for Christians to be peacemakers, to build bridges and keep the conversation going.”

Some of the most influential Christian voices amid the conflict, he noted, have belonged to evangelical Christians who strongly support Israel's war effort and U.S. Republican leadership. For instance, John Hagee, the San Antonio, Texas-based founder of the Christian Zionist organization Christians United for Israel, delivered the when President Donald Trump relocated the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018; he also when former presidential hopeful Nikki Haley launched her campaign early last year.

Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of the 14,000-member megachurch First Baptist Dallas in Texas, was also among the speakers at the Jerusalem embassy ceremony, and House Speaker Mike Johnson is a Southern Baptist and a onetime denomination official.

Nonetheless, Roberts said, “a lot of Christians are working quietly behind the scenes, doing everything they can to work for peace.”

At left, John Hagee, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, and founder of national advocacy group Christians United For Israel, stands by Candice Glover as she sings the national anthem at former 2024 presidential hopeful Nikki Haley's campaign launch in Charleston, S.C., in February 2023.

Todd Deatherage, a Christian who is executive director of the Telos Group, a peace organization based in Washington, D.C., said that while peacemaking is central to what it means to be Christian, “it’s probably the most neglected aspect of Christian discipleship. Christians have a central compelling theology of being peacemakers and agents of healing, but we are not known for that in the way we could and should be.”

Today's atmosphere, he said, offers not just an opportunity but an obligation to fulfill that calling. That the conflict is taking place in what’s known as the Holy Land, a region fraught with overlapping significance for multiple religions, complicates the situation.

“It really requires us to think outside the binary view that for one side to win the other has to lose,” Deatherage said. “That’s the activist frame that has existed for so long, and we’ve imported this conflict into our culture – and now, as we’ve seen, our college campuses. When you reduce it to that binary, you’re missing the fundamental truth that there’s not a good future for anyone there unless there’s a good future for everyone there.”

Christian views about the conflict differ

Conservative evangelical Christians have been among Israel's staunchest supporters.

“Christians who understand the Bible realize there are two sides to the war in Gaza,” said Jeffress, of First Baptist Church in Dallas. “To side with Israel as they defend themselves against those who would seek to destroy them is to be on the right side of history and, more importantly, the right side of God."

At left, Pastor Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, with former President Donald Trump at the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

A survey conducted last month by researchers at Boston University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke found nearly 1 in 5 (18%) evangelical Christians had heard their pastor discuss the war during services, compared with 13% of Catholics and 10% of mainline Christians.

Nearly 3 of 10 respondents – including 36% of evangelicals – said their church had prayed for Israel, and just 17% said their church had prayed for Palestinians.

“The most vocal organized Christian voice has been the one of the Christian Zionist movement, which sees this as a classic good and evil battle,” Deatherage said. “That’s the dominant voice, but there are dissident voices within mainstream evangelicalism that are asking questions and wrestling with the conflict that say the violence on both sides is wrong and leading us to ever darker places.”

Author and journalist Sarah Posner said the most prevalent version of Christian Zionism is promoted by groups like Christians United for Israel.

“It’s the notion that other countries, especially America, have a biblical duty to love Israel and support Israel and that God will bless those who bless Israel and curse those who curse Israel,” said Posner, author of “Unholy: How White Christian Nationalists Powered the Trump Presidency, and the Devastating Legacy They Left Behind.”

“They say they support Israel, but what it means is that support Israel’s far right, the Netanyahu government, the settlements and occupation. So they cannot claim to represent the wide spectrum of political ideology among Israelis.”

Mourners carried photos of victims killed during the Oct. 7 deadly Hamas attack on Israel's south during a memorial event held in February by families of victims in Jerusalem, Israel. As Israel examined the details of a fresh truce agreement with Hamas, pressure mounted on the Netanyahu government over its handling of events since the attack.

Driving that conservative evangelical position, she said, are beliefs that Israel is central to biblical prophecies about Jesus’ return to wage a final battle at Armageddon to vanquish the Antichrist. Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, has delivered sermons as recently that tie today's conflict to such prophecies.

“The theological view is driving the political view,” Posner said. "They equate any view of Israel that doesn’t align with theirs with antisemitism.”

That position is now being used to condemn the college campus demonstrations against Israel's handling of the war in Gaza, she said.

Conversely, more progressive Christian voices have denounced both Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s response, calling for a mutually agreed-upon solution to the conflict. Another important voice, Deatherage said, belongs to Black churches; in January, more than 1,000 Black pastors united to pressure President Joe Biden to call for a cease-fire in the war.

“They have their own experience with silence in the face of injustice, and they’re troubled by what’s happening,” he said.

Most Christians say peace requires mutual cooperation

A national survey of 1,252 U.S. Christians in November, nearly two months into the war, found most understood the complexity of the conflict, even if they didn’t necessarily agree.

“Christians are aware that there’s a lot of nuances here,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, which carried out sponsored by The Philos Project, a coalition of Christian leaders advocating for pluralism in the Middle East.

While respondents acknowledged suffering and reason to act out on both sides, McConnell said, most agreed military action was not the way to achieve lasting peace. Nearly 9 in 10 said that depended on a mutually agreed-upon solution between Israel and Palestinians.

The Rev. Mae Elise Cannon, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C., said many church leaders have been reluctant to talk about the war, dreading the divisions such discussion might sow among their congregations.

“They are immobilized by fear,” she said.

Deatherage agreed.

“This is a complex and divisive topic,” he said. “Talking about it is really hard, and so they’ve probably been more silent than vocal.”

At the same time, he said, others are leaning into the issue even if they don’t feel they have the necessary command of the issues and history behind a conflict that stretches back decades.

“It’s important as Christians to weep with those who weep and to recognize the humanity in all, Palestinians and Israelis,” Deatherage said. “A lot are taking seriously the gospel imperative to feed the hungry and are trying to find ways to get humanitarian aid to Gaza and lift the blockades. There’s a line some are connecting in those ways.”

Two men become emotional and comfort each other as they receive the bodies of World Central Kitchen workers who were killed by Israeli air strikes on April 02, 2024 in Rafah, Gaza. (Photo by Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images)

Some say Christian intervention is necessary at home as well, given the deep polarization that has pushed many interfaith bonds to their breaking point.

Cannon said some church communities are shy about expressing concerns with Israel, fearful of severing ties with local synagogues and Jewish communities. One pastor, she said, recently told her that after decadeslong relationships, he felt Christian pastors had done their Jewish communities a great disservice.

“He said, ‘We’ve kept our mouths shut about Palestine and didn’t tell them what we really think, because we didn’t want to offend Jewish rabbis and friends,’” she said. The pastor, she said, continued: “‘Now,’” he said, “‘we’ve known each other for years and come to find out we really haven’t been honest with one another. What kind of friendship is that?’”

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