A conference rarely reaches the heady heights of being a sensory experience but the third Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC) conference, meeting in Bethlehem this week, has done so in full measure.
Taking as its theme "Your Kingdom Come..." the aim has been to explore the challenges that stand against fulfilling this Kingdom vision in Israel-Palestine, and to see how the teachings of Jesus contribute to the task of achieving peace and justice in the land. And six hundred participants, half from Israel-Palestine and half from around the world, have enjoyed a feast!
The list of speakers has been impressive. Geoff Tunnicliffe, General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, Chris Wright, International Director of the Langham Partnership and Ruth Padilla deBorst of World Vision illustrate the global engagement of evangelicals with the situation in Palestine.
Vera Baboun, the Christian Mayor of Bethlehem, received a standing ovation for her passionate appeal for action on the first night, whilst BMS partners from Bethlehem Bible College (Jack Sara and Alex Awad), Musalaha (Salim Munayer) and the Association of Baptists in Israel (Bader Mansour) all added to the rich mix.
One of the most engaging conversations was between Gary Burge of Wheaton College and Daniel Juster, a leading Messianic Jewish theologian, expertly chaired by Yohanna Katanacho who spoke at Catalyst Live last year. Here was a robust yet respectful engagement with the theology of Israel, the Land, the covenant, the Church and eschatology. At times it was deeply uncomfortable to hear the pain of two hurting communities trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, but here too was the courageous sowing of seeds of hope for mutual understanding.
But sitting in lectures has been balanced by standing in queues to pass through the various checkpoints under the emotionless gaze of young, fully armed Israeli soldiers.
A visit to Hebron brought us to a whole street of Palestinian homes whose front doors have been welded shut to force the inhabitants to leave. Yet in spite of such injustices many have stayed and have created alternative entrances through windows!
A 6 am outing took us to the Bethlehem Checkpoint along with the EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment) team from the World Council of Churches. In driving rain we observed the indignity of hundreds of Palestinian workers having to go through security gates and searches in order to get to work, in their own land.
A private evening meeting for twenty participants with the Chairman of the Palestine Bank was both hopeful as we saw the huge potential for the Palestinian economy, and yet deeply worrying as we saw the restrictions on free trade for the West Bank and the scale of disaffected young people that have no hope of work.
In the midst of this, can there be a realistic hope for peace? I would have to offer a qualified 'yes'.
Certainly there is a mature Arab Christian theology of peacemaking and non-violent protest which bodes well for the future. But this cannot reach the millions of young, angry, unemployed Muslim Arab youngsters unless the Church is ready to be salt and light in the nation. The quality of young and old leaders here suggests they are more than ready for the task.
Hopeful too are the peace talks. Every ounce of me says that there have been peace talks before but they have come to nothing. But peace is always possible if just a few key people agree to make it happen.
As our conference met in the Intercontinental hotel this morning, Prime Minister David Cameron was meeting Mahmoud Abbas upstairs, having spent yesterday with Mr Netanyahu. The EU, USA and UK seem to be using the same script. A two-State solution is back in vogue. Cameron spoke yesterday of Israel as 'the nation state of the Jewish people', something Israel has long wanted to hear. Could it be that something significant is happening behind the scenes?
Maybe the symbolism is too obvious, but for a lasting peace we need both politicians and theologians. A political solution of sorts may be in the hands of politicians. But building the Kingdom of God is the task of the Church.
Pray for Israel/Palestine by using the prayer points in our Prayer Guide