The Alliance Church rings no bells in the backstreets of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. But the joyful singing of hymns by its congregation, accompanied by a drum and a guitar, echoes through the narrow alleys on Sundays and Thursdays. Inside, Arab Christians, mostly young families, pray fervently. They have turned from being Catholic, Greek Orthodox or members of other older Christian denominations. So far, this Pentecostal church has around 120 to 150 members, but, as in Brazil and other countries, converts grow each month. “We are born-again Christians,” says Pastor Jack Sara. “We believe in changing the heart so that people are renewed by God himself.”
As a member of the Christian Missionary Alliance, the Alliance Church has to keep within Palestinian political boundaries and Israeli legal boundaries. As its members are Palestinian and Arab it does not compare biblical Israel to modern Israel or support settlements – unlike most Pentecostal churches. And although it is a missionary church it cannot seek to convert. In Israel any inducements to change religion and give material benefits such as offering a job or an apartment are an offence. Under the Enticement to Change Religion law of 1977 – the “anti-missionary” law – attempts to proselytise are punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of up to £50,000.
Paradoxically, although Evangelicals here must refrain from recruiting new members, Israel benefits enormously from Evangelical communities around the world. In the past 12 months one stream of evangelical Christians in the United States gave over $100million (£63million) to Israel. Donations stay high because in spite of the recession there is a worldwide explosion in the number of converts.
Conversions in Jerusalem are, on the whole, rare and usually only take place before weddings. Marriage between men and women of different faiths and denominations – even between Catholics and Anglicans – is also against the law. One famous Catholic who converted to Islam was Suha Daoud Tawil. In 1990, when she was 27, Suha, who had been educated in the best convent here in Jerusalem, married Yasser Arafat, who was then 61. A few years after his death in 2004 she moved with their daughter to Tunisia. In 2007 the president revoked her Tunisian passport and since then her home has been a lavish villa purchased for her by Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya near her Orthodox mother in Malta and frequently goes to Italy.
The Israeli government has recently been reproached by some Palestinians for cashing in on Christian pilgrims and tourism. In November, the Palestinian Authority announced that it was displeased by the Greek Orthodox Church’s decision to attend the opening of the road built by Israel to ease access to fifth-century St George’s Monastery near Jericho in the West Bank. Dr Bernard Sabella of Bethlehem University said: “This area is part of the topography of Palestine. It should have been a Palestinian project.”
After 42 years as a closed military zone al-Yahud has been revamped and will soon be permanently open to the public. Visitors, though, will have to pass through a fenced-off road until all the landmines have been cleared. The Israeli army were against opening the site as the river is the official border with Jordan. Water there is so shallow that anyone can wade across from Jordan without going through security or passport control. Controversy from many angles certainly courts much that happens to Holy Places here.