Palestinian Evangelicals Gain Official Recognition From Palestinian Authority

Image: Jeremy Weber
Bishop Efraim Tendero announces the legal recognition of a Palestinian Evangelical Alliance at the general assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance.

After 12 years of waiting, evangelicals in Palestine now claim they have greater civil rights than their fellow believers in the Holy Land.

Earlier this month, the president of the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land—which represents congregations and ministries located in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip—triumphantly held aloft his evidence at the once-a-decade general assembly of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA).

“Here is the presidential decree signed by … President Mahmoud Abbas,” Munir Kakish told the approximately 800 WEA delegates from 92 nations gathered in Bogor, Indonesia. “Our hearts are full of thankfulness to God for this new declaration.”

When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in 1994 following the Oslo Accords, pastors of local evangelical churches met to create a council in order to have a voice with the new government, Kakish told CT.

Ministering in the Holy Land since 1978, Kakish pastors two churches: an independent congregation in Ramallah, Palestine, and a Baptist congregation in Ramla, Israel. They are only 30 miles apart, but divided by the Israeli separation wall.

“I knocked on [the PA’s] doors many times,” he said. “But now the timing was right, and the personnel … were understanding.

“Most of all, it was our persistence to obtain our civil rights as Palestinian citizens.”

Over time, the council—which Kakish has led since 2007—gained credibility as he introduced evangelical leaders from around the world to local stakeholders. At this month’s assembly in Indonesia, he thanked WEA president Efraim Tendero and executive adviser Deborah Fikes.

Founded in 1846, the WEA represents an estimated 600 million evangelicals through affiliates in 129 countries and before the United Nations, the Vatican, and other key groups.

“Christians all over the world are suffering for their faith,” said Tendero, celebrating onstage with Kakish.

“It is gratifying to know that we play a significant role in standing up for them and encouraging them.”

The evangelical council now joins 12 other recognized Christian sects, including the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.

The new legal status allows evangelical churches in Palestine to issue marriage licenses, to open church bank accounts, and to purchase land in the name of the church. Previously, churches were registered in the name of local believers, which complicated property ownership when those believers died.

“This decree protects the assets of the church,” Kakish said of the 23 member organizations in his council. “Now we are nearly equal with the traditional churches.”

All they lack is an ecclesiastic court; however, Kakish believes any cases can be settled through the civil courts or in cooperation with other recognized churches.

Recognized since the Ottoman period and subsequent British mandate, the traditional churches were unsure about recognizing the younger council and uncertain about its goals. Within the political realm, evangelicals suffered “severe tension,” said Kakish.

“We had to show that we were not connected with the extreme evangelical political positions found in the West,” he said. “US politics affect us greatly.”

Kakish told CT it was a “sad day” in Palestine, as the United States shifted its legal position last week to no longer recognize Jewish settlements in the West Bank as contrary to international law.

Thousands of Palestinians rallied to protest the decision.

“We will be doing damage control, as people immediately associate all evangelicals with these decisions,” he said. Instead, he emphasizes both the international scope of evangelical faith and the local impact of their schools and ministries.

Kakish, who lost his father at age 10, now oversees an orphanage and child services center in Ramallah.

The US State Department’s latest report on international religious freedom estimates 50,000 Christians live in the Palestinian territories, out of a population of 4.6 million. Most reside in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus.

The Palestinian Basic Law—which has functioned as an interim constitution since 2002—recognizes Islam as the religion of the state and sharia law as the primary source of legislation.

But it also provides for freedom of belief, worship, and the performance of religious rites, while forbidding religious discrimination and assigning a minimum quota of 6 seats in the 132-member parliament. A presidential decree requires a Christian head for 10 municipal councils.

Open Doors researchers state that the West Bank authorities (as opposed to Hamas-led Gaza) generally protect religious freedom.

But it does rank the Palestinian territories at No. 49 on its worldwide list of the hardest places to be a Christian, as they are “caught in the middle” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Source: Christianity Today