Hilda Reilly is a British writer who recently spent six months in Palestine. One of the surprising situations she encountered was the subversive activities of Christian fundamentalists in the Palestinian communities. While in Jerusalem she met a Canadian Christian Zionist couple from who invited her to stay at their home in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The following account is adapted from a passage in her book, Prickly Pears of Palestine.
On Saturday evening Barbara and Grant invited me to a prayer meeting. Before going there we drove over into Israel to pick up an American woman, Joanne. On the way back we passed a group of Palestinians standing at the side of the road. ‘Stop!’ Joanne cried. ‘I want to witness. Stop! Stop!’ Barbara rammed on the brakes. ‘I’ve got some leaflets with me,’ Joanne explained. ‘Whenever I see Palestinians I give them leaflets so that they can learn about the word of the Lord.’ She brought a sheaf of papers out of her bag and opened the door. I jumped out after her, keen to witness this ‘witnessing’. Joanne was thrusting her leaflets into the hands of the Palestinians, speaking to them in English about the love of Jesus. They appeared not to understand a word of what she said but accepted the leaflets politely.
The prayer meeting was hosted by David, a Puerto Rican Pentecostalist pastor, and his wife Leah who was a Messianic Jew. There was also Leah’s niece Tikva who was half Chinese, three Russian women, two Belgian men and two Americans.
After an opening prayer there was a singalong with Leah playing a guitar. I shared a hymn sheet with Grant who was beside me on the sofa.
‘Now this is the point at which we are all invited to give testimony’ David said when the strains of the last hymn had died away. ‘I’d like to start this evening by telling you about an important piece of news.’ Everyone looked at him expectantly. ‘Last week I received a call from a Palestinian man in Norway.
‘When I first met him he was with Hamas. They were training him how to use explosives, preparing him to be a suicide bomber. They took him to a disco in Tel Aviv to show him what paradise would be like with the seventy virgins promised in the Koran. I gave him the Bible. He took it home, started reading it and right away he saw the light. He became a believer. He told his family and he was thrown out of his village, he was threatened with death. He managed to leave the country and get to Norway. He’s travelled all over Norway. And he warns them about Islam. “Do you know, David,” he said to me, “they don’t understand about jihad. I tell them it means killing people.”’ There were nods from the group and some negative talk about Islam. ‘Anyway, the good news yesterday,’ continued David, ‘is that he’s got permission to come to Israel to get his wife and take her to Norway. So she’s going to be able to take that thing off her head,’ David mimed throwing away a hijab [headscarf], ‘and go shopping for, oh, Calvin Klein.’
‘Praise the Lord, allelujah,’ cried the group.
Tikva then spoke for a few minutes about some thoughts she’d had about a bible passage. Nobody else had anything to say.
‘Well, then,’ said David after a short silence, ‘I’d like now to invite the sister from Scotland to say a few words about how she was saved.’
‘Well actually, I haven’t been saved. I’m just a visitor.’ I quailed, thinking I was going to be shown the door or subjected to a barrage of proselytising.
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ said David. ‘Welcome to Ariel.’
We moved on to the next item on the agenda.
For the grand finale we all stood in a circle for more hymn singing. ‘Tonight,’ David announced, ‘I’m going to invite Grant and Barbara to lead us in praising the Lord with a number that they’ve performed on television, on the 700 Club, on CNN, and on the BBC.’
Grant and Barbara straight away burst into exuberant song in a blend of strong contralto and gruff baritone, swinging their arms and swaying their torsos. The others followed their movements in an improvised hokey-cokey of religious fervour. In the crescendo of spiritual enthusiasm Barbara, despite her 80-plus years, was practically break dancing.
‘David’s just called,’ Barbara said when I went down for breakfast the next morning. ‘He wants us to go over and have lunch with them today.’
She laid a boiled egg in front of me. ‘I get these from Hamid who lives in one of the villages near here. He has lovely eggs, with yellow yolks. The eggs here usually have pale yolks, but his are very yellow.’
I wondered how Barbara came to be consorting with a Palestinian but Grant was already saying grace and straight afterwards plunged us into another exercise in biblical exegesis so I didn’t get the chance to ask
I wondered how Barbara came to be consorting with a Palestinian but Grant was already saying grace and straight afterwards plunged us into another exercise in biblical exegesis so I didn’t get the chance to ask.
Over lunch David told me about their life as Christians in Ariel. Originally a dental technician, he had become a pastor after being ‘born again’ and had lived in Ariel for twenty years.
After the meal he invited me out on to the balcony to see the views. The wall of the balcony was inset with stones from the Dead Sea and shards of pottery which the family had collected from biblical sites. On top of it perched a wooden bird table with the Israeli flag on it.
‘Hamid built this,’ David said, pointing to the bird table. ‘Barbara may have told you about him. He’s one of our converts. He’s done a lot of odd jobs for us.’
‘Yes, Barbara did mention someone called Hamid. But how come that you, as Christians living in a Jewish settlement, are involved with Palestinians?’
It turned out that David’s ministry extended far beyond the handful of Christian families living in Ariel. His work focused mainly on proselytising among the local Muslims. Although not able to move freely in and out of the Palestinian villages, he had nevertheless, he claimed, been able to establish a burgeoning network of converts to Christianity. He had met Hamid when he drove into a village once to take a sick person to a clinic.
‘When I came out of the clinic I saw that my car was surrounded by a bunch of aggressive-looking men. There was a bit of an altercation. Things were starting to get ugly. So to appease them, I offered to give them some books. I opened a box of Bibles that I had in the car and I distributed them. A few days later I was driving along the road and Hamid waved me down. He wanted to learn more. After he converted he was arrested by the Palestinian police. They told him Muslims can’t convert. They tortured him, they hung him up for 13 days.’
Hamid was married with ten children. Although his wife and children remained Muslim, they were all ostracised, David said. ‘In their society the house is regarded as a Christian one. The oldest daughter is 20, but nobody is allowed to marry her. Hamid was all set to go to El Salvador. Barbara and Grant had it arranged with a friend there, but his children didn’t want him to go to South America, they said they would miss him too much, so he didn’t go.’
‘How many Muslims have you converted around here?’
‘We now have more than 150 who have become believers. In the past year three more Hamas members became believers. People who were very active in Hamas - throwing stones, shooting, killing other Palestinians that didn’t see it their way. The first change I see is that the hate and anger are no longer there, they develop a respect for their wives for the first time, and a desire to love unconditionally. Hamas are very different from the Fatah people in character. The Fatah are crooked and corrupt. The Hamas people are very honest.’
David took a file out of a drawer. It was filled with letters and articles about his evangelical activities.
He showed me a few of the letters, and also an article in Time magazine which he passed over very briefly.
‘Hey, would you like to meet Hamid?’ he asked.
David picked up the phone, dialled a number and spoke briefly.
‘Okay, we can go now.’
‘Where to? We can’t go into the village surely?’
‘He’ll be waiting for us in an olive grove outside the village. When we get there he’ll get into the car.’
Before we left, I asked David if he had a copy of the Time article he could give me.
‘Sorry, I don’t have any copies.’
‘Could we take it with us then and get a photocopy made somewhere?’
‘Wait a minute, maybe I’ve got a copy somewhere.’
He disappeared and came back with a folded sheet of A3.
‘You can have this.’
We drove out of Ariel and a few miles further on. ‘There he is,’ said David, pointing to a man lurking in a clump of trees. He braked sharply and the man hastily climbed into the back of the van beside me. The van had curtains. Hamid tugged at them to make sure that they were tightly closed. We did a quick U-turn and drove back the way we had come. David drew up at the side of the road at the entrance to Ariel.
David spoke no Arabic and Hamid spoke only a little English so it was agreed that the conversation would be in Hebrew, with David interpreting for me
David spoke no Arabic and Hamid spoke only a little English so it was agreed that the conversation would be in Hebrew, with David interpreting for me.
I asked him why he had converted to Christianity.
‘I read in the book of Matthew, come unto me all that are tired of working and I will give you rest. I received the light of Jesus. Those that have problems and have heavy things on them, they should come to him. Even though I’ve been to jail twice and it’s very dangerous for me at this point I believe it’s a test, to test my faith. But the trials, the difficulties make my faith even stronger.’
‘Were you religious before your conversion? Were you a devout Muslim?’
‘You could call me eighty percent Muslim at that time.’
‘And why did you think Christianity was better?’
‘Islam was supposed to be everybody caring for one another but it turned out to be like a mafia, everyone killing and torturing one another. In Islam you were supposed to help other people. This is what it says, but it was different. When I was in jail my children were persecuted because of me. In school they had to sit in a corner with a hat on them to identify them as infidels. When I was in jail I evangelized. I told seven men about my faith in Jesus. Two of them were killed when they left, one in Qalqilya, one in Nablus.’
Hamid spoke at some length about the difficulties experienced by himself and his family and about bible passages which he found supportive. He received some financial help from Christians, including payment for the eggs and olive oil he sold to them and for the odd jobs he did in the settlement. He believed in the biblical prophecies about the forthcoming destruction of Al Aqsa mosque and Temple Mount but claimed that the land could be shared happily by everyone.
‘In the Koran it says: Look, oh Israel, the land is given to you. The Arabs believe that the land of Israel was given to the Jews but the Hamas people say God brought the Jewish people here to make it easier for the Arabs to kill them. We have no other choice but to live together.. If there was peace we could all make a living together, we could all have food in our homes. We can see how Jesus multiplied the bread and the fishes and there was bread and fish left over because there was the blessing and mercy of God. If everyone would do according to the words of Jesus, everyone would be living in prosperity.’
I wondered how much of his Hebrew was being translated faithfully for me by David.
I wondered how much of his Hebrew was being translated faithfully for me by David.
We turned round to take Hamid back. Hamid said something to David.
‘He wants to pray for you,’ David said.
Hamid laid his hand on my shoulder and prayed aloud all the way to the olive grove.
Back at Grant and Barbara’s house I opened up the paper David had given me. Inside it was blank. The other side showed only the first page of a Time article published in June 2003. It showed a photo of the inside of David’s van with curtains tightly closed, the back of a keffiya-covered head and a hand holding a Bible. The title read Missionaries under Cover, the sub-title Growing numbers of Evangelicals are trying to spread Christianity in Muslim lands. But is this what the world needs now? Below this the introductory paragraphs to the text that David had withheld from me suggested that the answer to that question would be no.
I had been profoundly disturbed by my meeting with Hamid. There was no doubt in my mind that what David was doing was wrong. By proselytising in this way he was creating conflict within the Palestinian community. Muslims generally regard apostasy as a very grave matter and here it was aggravated by the fact that Hamid and others like him were seen to be associating with the enemy. They would therefore be treated as collaborators.
All this increased the feeling of discomfort that I already had about being in Ariel. I felt guilty about not being upfront with Barbara and Grant. I had been there for five days and didn’t feel able to talk freely because I’d decided not to reveal that I’d been living in the West Bank. It stuck in my craw that I had to listen to David’s accounts of conversion in silence. Added to all this, I had just phoned Ruth, an Israeli human rights activist that I’d met on election day. We chatted for a bit, then I told her where I was. ‘Oh,’ she said with a sharp intake of breath, ‘for us, that’s the lion’s den.’
It was time to leave.