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Christians and the Holy Land

A Jerusalem pastor weighs in on Islam, the end times, and the mission of the Church

Christ Church in Jerusalem Creative Commons/Bahnfrend

Christians and the Holy Land
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David Pileggi is the rector of Christ Church, a 174-year-old Anglican church in Jerusalem’s Old City. He and his wife Carol moved from Tampa, Fla., to Israel in 1980 after what he described as a “divine propulsion.” But they had no solid plan. For 19 years he directed a study program dedicated to teaching Christians about the Jewish context of their faith. In 2008, he became rector of Christ Church Jerusalem where he has been involved in helping Palestinian children get medical care in Israeli hospitals.

Pileggi has an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish studies and is a licensed tour guide. He and his wife live among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Jerusalem’s Old City and have three adult children, one currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. I met with him in the Christ Church library in early December to talk about the war in Gaza. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

David Pileggi

David Pileggi Handout

How has the West failed to understand the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? In the West our worldview is quite secular. I think therefore I am. In the Middle Eastern culture, I belong, therefore I am. One belongs to a family, a clan, and first and foremost, a religion. We don’t understand Islam, and I don’t think we understand Zionism.

What does Hamas want? Hamas wants a one-state solution. They want an Islamic state from the river to the sea that will not be democratic. It will be religious in that it will oppress minorities and women and those who may be gay. It will repress freedom of speech, any form of political dissent, and it will end up more or less like a typically dysfunctional Middle Eastern state with some Jews living here.

What about the rest of the Jews? The rest of the Jews will be, according to their understanding, either killed or driven out to the countries from whence they came. That is their fantasy and it has very little to do with peace, occupation, land, borders, refugees, and the like.

Does Hamas have a particular belief about the last days? Hamas does have an eschatology. We somehow don’t ever bring that into the picture. They share a similar eschatology, in a way, to Hezbollah and Iran, even though Hamas is Sunni and Hezbollah is Shia. They have in their midst those who are trying to push the end of history, as Islam would understand it, when all nations will eventually become Islamic. For groups like Hamas and a certain percentage of the Palestinian public, the state of Israel has to be eliminated and the region returned to Islamic rule for that to happen.

Besides the Hamas charter, which explicitly calls for the destruction of the Jewish people, what evidence do we have that they are not interested in land for peace arrangements? I was here in the ’90s when the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis was more or less going along swimmingly. Palestinians were gaining autonomy, Israel was turning over parts of the West Bank and then the Gaza Strip [in 2005] to the Palestinians. This frightened Hamas. At the height of the peace process when things looked really positive, they began a bombing campaign and sent suicide bombers into cafés and onto Israeli buses. Their whole intention was to wreck the process because they don’t want a two-state solution.

What religious texts do they cite to support their agenda? You have texts in Muslim sources that talk about Jews hiding at the Islamic end of days, and the rocks and the trees will cry out, “Here’s a Jew here,” and good Muslims will slaughter these Jews. In fact, one text in particular talks about them being slaughtered in what is today the area of Jaffa Gate. This sort of violent end is a part of the vision that motivates Hamas, Hezbollah, and other such extremist jihadist groups.

Does the Palestinian population support these extremist ideas? You have Palestinians who I think genuinely want to live in peace with Israel and they want to end the conflict. But you also have Palestinians with the same motivation that understand that any peace with Israel will be temporary. They talk about not so much peace, but in Arabic, a hudna, which is a truce. And the truce is modeled on the way that Muhammad dealt with the city of Mecca. Muhammad was at war with Mecca and he made a truce with the city. After a while, he broke the truce and his Bedouin supporters were quite shocked. His response was this is acceptable in dealing with nonbelievers. So, of course, this presents a huge dilemma and a challenge for the state of Israel.

How should Christians approach the conflict? On the one hand I think we have to be very careful and even suspect Islam. On the other hand, we need to treat with compassion and respect those who are Muslims and not turn them into enemies. And I think that the teachings of Jesus are quite helpful here in that you can turn your enemies into your friends. Not in every case, and we shouldn't be naive. We should be very careful when we’re dealing with evil. But at the same time, we need to be very careful in not pushing away those who might have some sympathy to what Hamas is doing.

There’s not only a religious element here, there’s also a cultural element that we find all through the Middle East and the Mediterranean where respect and honor are hugely important. It’s not easy to swallow humiliation or to walk away. Coming from an Italian American family, I can tell you that’s something you often see in southern Italian culture. With the shame-and-honor culture, one just points a finger at other people.

When wars heat up in the Middle East, we witness a surge of predictions about Christ’s second coming. What’s your take? We have to really be careful with eschatology. I affirm the creed that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, but at the same time, the United States has had relative peace and security compared to most other countries in the world. And now when we see conflicts like this one in Israel or the war in Ukraine, we have this tendency to start proclaiming that this is the end. Jesus doesn’t know when he’s coming back, so I don’t know when he’s coming back. It certainly might be soon, or it might be in 100 years.

What do Israelis think about Christian eschatology? We often think of Jews as pieces on a chessboard, and we’re rooting and cheering when we see the Jewish people reunite Jerusalem or when we see the growth of the Jewish population in the state of Israel. We begin to think of the Jewish people not as real people.

Many Israelis hear these Christian prophetic scenarios which talk about one-third or two-thirds of the Jewish people being killed, the Antichrist, the last battle, et cetera. And I personally, and so do many Israelis, find it very abhorrent that we understand the Jewish people in these terms. Paul says in Romans 11 that God loves the Jewish people for the sake of the prophets, for the sake of the patriarchs. He doesn’t love the Jewish people because they have settlements or they reestablished the state of Israel, or they might or might not rebuild the Temple, or they’re fulfilling His grand design.

How do we employ wisdom as we think through the various aspects of this conflict? We should be very strong in opposing anti-Semitism, and at the same time, we need to be true to ourselves as followers of Jesus. This may mean that we don’t necessarily agree with every policy that is being enacted by the state of Israel, especially this particular government that we have now. So the Jewish people are elected by God, but we need to keep in mind that their election is not an end in itself. Their election was for the sake of the nations and for us.

What would you say to the pastors who jump at any opportunity to link events in Israel to prophecy? For those people who are really convinced that this is only about prophecy, I would just suggest that they move here, let their children serve in the army, pay some very high taxes, live with the stress of routine emergencies, and stop being armchair or YouTube commentators on the prophetic.

Is there a better way to approach eschatology?When Jesus talks about the end, he talks about the gospel going forward to all the nations of the world, and he’s also reminding us that we have to be missional, not passive. We don’t sit at home and collect food and bury gold in our backyard. And Matthew’s Gospel just reminds us that we must also remain ethical—feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit those who are oppressed and more. And so my concern is that we don’t end up humiliating ourselves or discrediting the gospel. We can be watchful and prayerful, but we should not speculate or do anything to promote fear.

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



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