JERUSALEM (Mennonite Mission Network) — Back in 2000, Jewish Jerusalem Bible-college students met their Bethlehem Arab Palestinian counterparts for a time of worship, prayer and interaction well away from the authorities who would keep them apart. Students who entered with doubts as to how they could have fellowship with the “other side” left as friends while college organizers anticipated the next gathering.
It took six years.
In early April, the students finally renewed their fellowship. Nearly 100 students from Israel College of the Bible and Bethlehem Bible College gathered in an undisclosed location outside of an unfinished portion of Jerusalem’s security wall. Arab Christians and Messianic Jews received each other with embraces that stood in conflict with the animosity between Arabs and Jews outside of the building.
“We have always believed that in the Middle East it is important for Palestinian and Jewish believers in Jesus to look beyond the barriers and through the help of the Holy Spirit to enjoy the unity to which all are called,” wrote a worker* with Mennonite Mission Network who helped to organize the fellowship retreat. “To what extent can their oneness in Jesus transcend their national identities?”
Steve*, a Messianic Jewish student from Israel College of the Bible, said the two groups initially sat apart – Israelis on the right side of the room and Palestinians on the left side. Then someone suggested they change seats and the fellowship truly began.
“I can’t see a difference between the two sides,” Steve said. “The two sides worship God, the Lord Jesus.”
But a history of violence separates them. During the daylong retreat, one Palestinian student told of her home being shelled several years ago by Israelis. She and her family lay prostrate as the shells penetrated the walls of their home. Still, the woman came to the retreat in a spirit of reconciliation and love, not animosity or revenge.
The mission worker described the retreat as a true example of the unifying power of the gospel – bringing two disparate groups together for united worship, singing, dining and prayer.
“As Jews and Arabs, they were accepting their unity in the Messiah and their call to serve him together in the bond of peace,” the worker wrote.
By the end of the retreat, after the believers prayed together in Hebrew and Arabic, students traded e-mail addresses and pledged to strengthen the bridges they had formed.
One student said, "If Jesus prayed for unity in John 17, he must have known that the prayer could be answered."
The answer was long in coming. Organizers from the two colleges had attempted a second gathering for years, but continuing violence in the region scuttled their plans. Planners often set retreat dates only to cancel plans because of acts of violence or reprisals.
The April retreat occurred during a window of quiet that ended April 20 with a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
The mission worker said professors at the two colleges would like to hold the next retreat over several days, but students and leaders will need to find another meeting location as traveling challenges increase.
While Steve often travels to visit and share fellowship with his Palestinian brothers and sisters in faith in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, Palestinians have difficulty visiting Jewish areas. The continuing construction of the security wall that surrounds Jerusalem not only soon will separate the retreat site from the city, preventing Israelis from traveling there, but it will make traveling to all Palestinian areas more difficult.
The Bethlehem Palestinians also face difficulties gaining permission to travel outside of their areas, since they must cross borders to arrive in Jerusalem.
*The worker and student are not identified due to ongoing security concerns in the region.