Bethlehem Bible College sits within walking distance of the birthplace of Jesus and about 200 metres from the eight-metre-high concrete wall that hems in Palestinians such as those who lead and attend the college.
Bethlehem is no less troubled today than it was for Mary and Joseph, who, despite the “Silent Night,” had to flee by dark, according to Matthew, before Herod eventually killed “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.”
The region is again home to violence and tension. Palestinians face arbitrary detention (including detention of minors), outright displacement from their homes and lands, and military violence. They have virtually no recourse.
I acknowledge that Palestinian extremists occasionally kill Israelis and create fear in Israel, as we see on the news. Without justifying this, I note that Israel, as an occupying power with billions of dollars in American support, carries out far more violence.
The only Bible college in Bethlehem, and all of Palestine, is shaped by these circumstances as it also seeks to shape them. In addition to peacebuilding activities at home, the college seeks to shift attitudes abroad, especially among fellow evangelicals, as Byron Rempel-Burkholder explains in his feature. Canadian Mennonites are pitching in.
Ironically, Christians in the Holy Land are often neglected. The majority of Palestinians are Muslim, but the Holy Land is also home to Palestinian Christians, some of whom trace their lineage back hundreds of years. Yousef Alkhouri, an instructor at Bethlehem Bible College, is one of them. Alkhouri, along with college president Jack Sara, visited Canada this past fall, at the invitation of Mennonite Church Canada.
I spoke with them after an adult education session and sermon at Morden (Man.) Mennonite Church.
Alkhouri had shared how he can only travel to see his family in Gaza, 60 kilometres away, around Christmas and Easter as those are the only times Israeli authorities will grant permission to travel. He showed pictures of an apartment building reduced to rubble by Israeli air strikes. It had been home to his sister and her family. They were given 10 minutes notice. Alkhouri clarified that his sister is a Sunday School teacher not a terrorist.
I asked Alkhouri and Sara about the Song of Mary which talks about God lifting up the lowly and bringing down the mighty. For Sara, the passage means God came to the poor, not to Herod’s palace.
“Even if we don’t see hope,” Sara said, “there is a gift in us. . . . God is on the side of the poor and marginalized and lowly. . . . [T]he oppressive structures will not last forever.”
Alkhouri added: “We suffer oppression like Mary. . . . We are longing for God’s intervention.”
Unpacking the Arabic word sumud, he talked about how Palestinians stretch their roots deep to create a space to thrive.
Then I asked about enemies. Surrounded by overt antagonism and constant military presence, what does Sara teach his children about loving their enemies. His kids go to school with Israelis. He wants them to see Israelis as humans not devils. Humans can be “transformed by my humanity” he said.
Alkhouri added that for them, loving their neighbour and their enemy are often the same thing. “We are called to be peacemakers,” he said, and that “requires sacrifice.”
Much has changed since the first Christmas; much has not. To understand Emmanuel, our notions of a serene manger must combine with current realities of people like Jack Sara and Yousef Alkhouri. For in Bethlehem is born—and reborn—a tender, humble mystery amidst trouble and tumult.
Thanks to Jessica Evans who served as Alberta Correspondent since spring 2022. We acknowledge the good work she did for CM and wish her well in her new position with MCC Alberta.
Finally, we have a digital-only issue coming out on Dec. 26 (to sign up contact email@example.com). The next print issue will be mailed on Jan. 16.
—Corrected Dec. 21, 2022. The date for the next print issue was originally misidentified.