A Bethlehem Pastorate

By John Ellis

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Pastor Nihad

On an ecumenical Study Tour of Israel/Palestine I met a wide range of people. Many members of the United Reformed Church would instinctively warm to Pastor Nihad. He leads an independent local church which tries to stay free of the complications and restrictions of the historic “established” Church traditions. His congregation uses a utilitarian building without expensive decoration or tourist appeal. He has a heart for evangelism, believing Jesus Christ to be the unique Son of God. He has a mixed congregation of around 300, keen to take their faith seriously. The noticeboards in the hall show evidence of a lively Junior Church. His main request of us was for prayer.

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Immanuel Evangelical Church, Bethlehem

 

 

But unlike any URC congregation, his church is in Bethlehem. His people feel vulnerable to political instability, dramatically illustrated by the 25 feet high wall that now separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem. Many of his congregation ask him for advice on whether to leave the country, given their sense that many would be glad to be rid of the Christian minority. A group of local youths bombarded our coach, although fortunately with nothing more dangerous than snowballs.

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Manger Square with Christmas tree and mosque

One could turn aside from all this and follow the peaceful pilgrim trail to the church in Manger Square, and enter the church on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. It claims to be the oldest church in continuous use in the world. It is elaborately decorated in the style of the Greek Orthodox Church, which could hardly be more different from that of our tradition. The centrepiece, at which visitors are invited to pray for a few moments, is a silver star set into the floor. When I reached it, I found someone had left on the star an American one dollar bill. Whatever that was about, it was a sharp reminder that you cannot keep contemporary global influences out of life in Israel/Palestine.

And almost everything Nihad told us, with deep conviction and moving passion, was contested by someone else we met. For example, both the Israeli Government spokesman and the representatives of the Palestinian leadership insisted that they would honour and protect Christians. They inhabited a radically different story. Each conversation served to underline how the complexities of different narratives make any progress towards a lasting peace with justice seem almost impossible, at least while present leaders remain in place.

Perhaps it was a relief that what Nihad most sought was our prayers.

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