BETHLEHEM, Palestine – Six years ago, Bethlehem Bible College organized the first Christ at the Checkpoint conference to ask: what would Jesus do in the face of an Israeli checkpoint? How does Christ’s Gospel respond to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today? Three international conferences later, we ask the same question within an intensified context of violence and suffering: how does the Gospel respond in the face of religious extremism? As the global church, and especially as Palestinian Christians, how are we to understand and follow Christ’s example in response to the ideological, political and spiritual conflicts gripping our region and world?

Yesterday night, several hundred delegates from twenty-three nationalities, Israel included, gathered in the Orient Palace Hotel for the opening ceremony of Christ at the Checkpoint 2016.  Their aim, and that of this entire conference, is to understand the dangers of religious extremism, whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or any other, and to formulate a Christ-like response. The opening session included welcome addresses from the mayor of Beit Jala, Nicola Khamis, the president of Bethlehem Bible College Rev. Dr. Jack Sara, and the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance Bishop Efraim Tendero, among others. Worship, musical performance and a poetry reading and reflection were also provided by the Bethlehem Bible College choir, Tamer Sahoury and Albert Bassil and poet Lucy Berry.

“Our region is suffering at the hands religious extremists, as evidenced by the violence, death and destruction inflicted by them against all who disagree with them,” Dr. Sara said. This mix of politics, religion and violent insistence on exclusive agency over truth comprise the same spirit of extremism that Jesus faced, Sara said. Yet a God who commands killing and destroying must be a false God, he added. Just as Christ faced his enemies with pure love, so Christ’s followers today worship and obey a God whose way is love, mercy and justice – the antithesis of violent extremism.

“God does not send his followers with swords, but with love and compassion for every individual being regardless of their race, color or language. That is the God I serve,” Sara said. “In the language of religious extremists, however, love has no place.”

Bishop Tendero likewise explicated the difference between the Gospel and religious extremism, especially highlighting the biblical belief that salvation is by faith alone, not by cultural or national identity, and that faith cannot be forced upon self or others. “The nature of religion is to make truth claims about what ultimately exists and how to relate to the divine,” Tendero said. “But religion becomes extremist when it uses force or violence to impose truth claims on others or its own members.” Such coercive religion is especially dangerous when mixed with religious nationalism, Tendero said, in which religion is used to define national identity, usually at the cost of violence and suppression of minorities. The Gospel, in contrast, teaches a radical transformation of identity that cuts across cultures and implants loves whose adherents not only engage with those alien to them, but also humbly respect and give brotherly love to their neighbors and enemies.

We pray that this spirit of mutual honoring and serving, of working together as neighbors, and of seeking to love despite disagreement will fill this conference. We see the holy image of God in each person and want to seek greater justice, peace and truth together, despite and through our differences. As Dr. Jonathan Kuttab, chairman of the board at Bethlehem Bible College, stated: “Welcome to those who disagree with us politically and theologically. We will hear you with humility.”