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New documentary challenges evangelical bonds with Israel

Oct. 30, 2013 9:26 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 1, 2013 3:12 P.M.)
By: Graham Liddell
BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- A new documentary about Palestinian Christians is challenging mainstream evangelical assumptions about the Holy Land in the United States.

As evangelical organizations hold events across the US presenting an unbreakable bond between Christians and Israel, first-time director Yasmine Perni tours American churches with a film that instead documents the plight of Palestinian Christians at the hands of Israel.

"The (Palestinian) Christians have never been covered like this before," Perni told Ma'an Saturday.

"The Stones Cry Out" starts by documenting the history of Kifr Biram, a predominantly Christian Palestinian village that was destroyed by Israel after the Nakba.

Former residents of Kifr Biram tell the story of being expelled from their homes by Jewish militants in 1948 and becoming refugees in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon. Many attempted to return, but in 1953, they watched as their village was demolished on orders from the Israeli government. Israel has since converted the village lands into a national park.

Perni wants Western audiences to hear the story of Kifr Biram firsthand while they still can. Many of the original residents have already died, including three elderly men who passed away during filming.

"And so I feel that telling their story is a way of keeping their memory alive and their struggle to find peace," Perni said.

The film moves to an overview of the Six Day War and Israel's ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Footage of the events overlaps with Palestinian Christians' accounts of their experiences throughout the First Intifada - during which Israeli forces killed over 1,000 Palestinians - and throughout Israel's 2002 siege on Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity during the Second Intifada.

"Most of the Christians abroad were silent (during the siege)," Bethlehem pastor Rev. Mitri Raheb says in the film.

He says Christians "like to sing about the little town of Bethlehem in the churches on Christmas Eve, but I felt at that time that actually Bethlehem was abandoned."

Featured prominently in the film, Raheb told Ma'an Friday that the story of Palestinian Christians is little known in the West, and even less "among Evangelical Christians."

He said he hopes the documentary reaches as many people as possible.

Hopes for impact on Western audiences

Christian Zionism - the belief that the modern State of Israel is a manifestation of God's biblical promise to the Jews - is a significant force in US politics. One Christian Zionist organization, Christians United for Israel, is the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States. In addition to lobbying Congress and contributing financially to pro-Israel causes including illegal settlements, CUFI holds regular "Nights to Honor Israel" in US churches using scripture to back up pro-Israel political action. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke at one such event last Sunday.

"I think that is using the Bible as a weapon," Perni told Ma'an.

Though she hopes Christian Zionists will see the film, they are not necessarily her intended audience.

"The film is for everyone. … I'm not a theologian. I'm a journalist. I report the stories that I see," Perni said.

Without dwelling on theology, "The Stones Cry Out" simply tells "the Palestinian story, but through the eyes of the Christians."

Despite widespread Christian support for Israel in the US, Raheb told Ma'an that he was optimistic about changing evangelical mindsets on Palestine.

"It's not a hopeless case," Raheb said. "The first time I went to the States in 1991, most of the people I met knew nothing about Palestine. That has changed a lot."

"I see among the evangelical Christian community more openness towards the Palestinians."

Christians under Israeli occupation

In 2012, former Israeli ambassador to the United States Michael Oren wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal in which he blamed Christian emigration from Palestine on Muslims.

Raheb says in the film that Israel "would love" Palestine to be free of Christians, "because then they can sell this conflict as a Jewish-Muslim conflict, as a religious conflict."

"Oren at the end of the day really is interested in fueling Islamophobia because this sells well with certain groups," Raheb told Ma'an, "as if Israel actually is the one defending the Western value."

He said that in an academic study he conducted, less than 1 percent of emigrating Christians said they were leaving because of tensions with Muslims, and most actually left leave due to political and economic situations imposed by the occupation.

The documentary, Perni told Ma'an, "reveals my own discovery of what it really means to live under occupation."

Though she lived in the Arab world throughout much of her life, she said that the reality of the occupation only set in when she moved to Jerusalem and visited Bethlehem. A major hub of Christianity in the West Bank, Bethlehem is surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements. A wall constructed by Israel beginning in 2002 separates Palestinians not only from Israel, but in many cases from their own property.

One Palestinian Christian from Bethlehem shows in the film how the wall encases her house on three sides, rendering access to her backyard impossible and turning her home "into a tomb."

"Christians are hit by the occupation the same way Muslims are," Raheb told Ma'an.

Unfortunately, Perni said, many in the West are unaware of the very existence of Palestinian Christians. When they meet Christians from Palestine, "people in America ask them when they converted."

"The Stones Cry Out" premieres in cities across the US in late October and early November.
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