Evangelicals against Israel: a grave trend
A Christian pilgrim outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem
Its provocative name was matched by the provocative logo of a church behind barbed wire, next to Israel's security barrier. Last week, some 600 Christian clerics, activists and academics gathered in Bethlehem for the Christ at the Checkpoint conference.
They discussed why, in their view, Christians who support Zionism have got it wrong. There were sessions with titles such as 'Seven Biblical Answers to Popular Zionist Assumptions'. This was delivered by the programme director Stephen Sizer, pastor of Christ Church in Surrey and author of Christian Zionism: Roadmap to Armageddon.
There was predicable outrage in Jewish circles. The B'nai B'rith World Centre criticised the gathering "because of the clear anti-Israel and anti-Jewish posture of the event". Abraham Cooper and Yitzchok Adlerstein, rabbis at the Wiesenthal Centre, wrote in the Jerusalem Post that it promotes "toxic theology". But internal criticism from within the Christian community has been even stronger. Jürgen Bühler, executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, said in a statement that the theological approach of the conference "can easily lend itself to antisemitism and anti-Israel propaganda".
The reason for the strong passions is that Christ at the Checkpoint is the key component of a battle that is talking place over the soul of the evangelical movement, to which the conference organisers and the International Christian Embassy both belong.
Among Christians, evangelicals are the most inclined to support Israel. Religious leaders cite theological doctrine as requiring backing for the Jewish state, both political and philanthropic. And across much of the movement, Zionism is the norm.
Of course, there have always been dissenting voices, but they have lacked the organisation and developed theology of the Zionists. Christ at the Checkpoint, a now-annual event established in 2010, is an ambitious attempt to change this.
"It is a battle of narratives," the conference's media director Porter Speakman Jr told Palestinian press. As he sees it, it set out to rectify the situation that, previously among evangelicals, "there has only been one story about the situation here and who the people are".
Observers said that the event made significant headway in developing an intellectual arsenal for anti-Zionist evangelicals. It managed to "strengthen and sharpen various arguments that debunk the myths that many consider is the stereotypical position of Christian evangelicals," wrote Daoud Kuttab, a journalist with the Palestinian media outlet Ma'an News.
The emerging battle over the "correct" path for evangelicals may just seem another case of the anti-Israel lobby making inroads in a faith community. But this case is far more important than others. Perhaps even surpassing Jews, evangelicals are the most enthusiastic and effective lobbyists for Israel in America. Their community's vote in the upcoming presidential election is a large part of what pushes candidates to commit to Israel.
If the growing movement that has just refined its theology at Christ at the Checkpoint has significant impact on attitudes among evangelicals - or even if its leaders mange to create an illusion that it has - this could have serious consequences for Israel.