‘It’s impossible to celebrate’: Gaza war opens fissures among US Christians

Date 2023-12-24 151

In Bethlehem in the West Bank, the birthplace of Jesus, Christmas has been canceled. There will be no trees, no lights, no choirs or celebrations.

Instead of a manger, at the Lutheran church in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus lies swaddled in a keffiyeh, half buried in a pile of rubble.

"It's impossible to celebrate when there's a massacre, a genocide, taking place in Gaza with our people," Pastor Munther Ishaq, told Al Jazeera.

In the US, some Christians are following suit. "The only gift that Palestinians want to have is a Christmas ceasefire gift," said the Rev Khader Khalila, who grew up in Bethlehem, and is now at The Redeemer-St John's Lutheran church in Brooklyn. Khalila will not be exchanging gifts this year, even with his own two children, and will instead donate money to organizations helping children in Gaza and rebuilding efforts.

The United States is home to the world's largest population of Christians - a diverse faith group profoundly divided along denominational and political lines. These divisions are on stark display when it comes to the war in holy land.

Shortly after Hamas's 7 October attacks on southern Israel, some 90 pastors and other leaders signed an "Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel" condemning Hamas. "In keeping with Christian Just War tradition, we also affirm the legitimacy of Israel's right to respond against those who have initiated these attacks," the letter read. Among its signatories was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who represents the largest evangelical Protestant group in the US with about 13 million members.

A very different letter was sent to President Joe Biden on 9 November from Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP) and 30 American Christian leaders, calling for the administration to "support an immediate ceasefire, de-escalation, and restraint by all involved". It was signed by representatives of the Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, United, Lutheran and Orthodox churches, among others.

Evangelical Protestants, who lean more Republican, account for about 24% of the adult US population, according to 2021 Pew Research Center research. Catholics account for 21%, and non-evangelical or "mainline" Protestants, who lean more moderate or liberal, account for about 16%. In terms of support for the Israeli government, 68% of white evangelicals express a very or somewhat favorable view, while only 50% of Catholics and 51% of white non-evangelical Protestants feel that way, according to 2022 Pew polls.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which has nearly 4 million congregants, denounced both Hamas and Israel's retaliation, but said that the "power exerted against all Palestinian people - through the occupation, the expansion of settlements and the escalating violence - must be called out as a root cause of what we are witnessing".

But even supporters of Israel are concerned about the mounting death toll in Gaza.

Earlier this month, two women were shot dead by Israeli snipers while taking refuge inside a church in Gaza, and seven others were wounded.

Most of the Christians left in Gaza - some 800-1,000 of them - have been sheltering in two churches. Pope Francis condemned the killings and suggested Israel was using "terrorism" tactics across the strip.

"I think Christmas should go on because in some ways, it's a protest against the war and violence in the world," said Daniel Darling, a signatory to the letter in support of Israel and director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Darling has visited Israel four times on Christian tours and feels attached to the state in part because his grandparents were Jews who had fled pogroms in Poland and Russia.

"It doesn't mean there's a blank check for the Israeli government," said Darling, adding, "I do hold Hamas responsible, in large part, for the plight of their people."

American evangelical support for Israel is tied into beliefs about the state's role in accelerating the second coming of Christ. "I think we all agree that he's coming soon," said Darling, referring to the epic battle of Armageddon where Jesus returns to earth.

More progressive denominations have taken a much firmer stance against Israel's military campaign.

Susan Wilder, a minister at the Grace Presbyterian church in Springfield, Virginia, joined an international delegation of Christian leaders spending Christmas in Bethlehem in solidarity with the Palestinians. She worries about US complicity in the war: "We haven't been a good friend to Israel in really calling them to halt these atrocities that's essentially genocide on display for all the world to see."

The Presbyterian Church (USA), representing 1.1 million members, voted in the summer of 2022 to declare Israel an apartheid state. They previously called for US aid to Israel to be conditional on compliance with US law and voted to boycott settlement products and divest from companies that profit from Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories.

This Christmas, Wilder's church will conduct a "prayer of mourning and solidarity" with a Christian congregation in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus. They have had a partnership with the Palestinian congregation for the past 16 years, but "this is the worst the situation has ever been for them", said Wilder referring to the death toll in besieged Gaza and settler violence in the West Bank.

While the Presbyterian church's stance, along with the United Church of Christ, may be the most robust in their criticism of Israel's decades-long occupation, they are not alone, says Philip Farah, founder of Palestinian Christian Alliance for Peace. "The majority of mainline Protestant denominations in the US have divested their pension funds from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the majority have passed resolutions calling for the boycott of products made in the illegal Israeli settlements."

While the Vatican has been very critical of Israel's bombardment, its US representatives have been notably more muted.

There are more than 60 million Catholics in the US - Joe Biden is one of them. While the pope has repeatedly called for a ceasefire. the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has avoided using the word, opting instead for an "immediate cessation of all hostilities", along with prayers for peace.

The USCCB has been quiet and unwilling to help mobilize the public to take the action needed to pressure political leaders, said Eli McCarthy, a professor at Georgetown University in justice and peace studies and a member of the Franciscan Action Network.

"They have also said nothing about sending weapons to Israel, much less the Pentagon budget in general," McCarthy said. "What I think we see here is the difference between nationalism and Catholicism."