Khalil Sayegh | A Palestinian Christian Position
Khalil believes real peace can only be achieved when Palestinians root out the negative prejudices against Jewish neighbors.
A proud Palestinian, Khalil believes that real peace can only be achieved when Palestinians root out the negative prejudices against their Jewish neighbors. He stands firmly with his people in the midst of great suffering and is determined to be a force for good within Palestinian society by promoting pluralism and diversity through education and encounter.
Khalil is a Palestinian Christian born and raised in the Gaza Strip. Growing up, Khalil was filled with bitterness towards the Jewish people after witnessing Israeli airstrikes in his neighborhood and being told that Israel was responsible for all of his suffering. As a member of Gaza's small Christian minority, Khalil was frequently harassed for his faith and struggled with his identity and place within Palestinian society. After the 2008 war between Israel and Hamas, Khalil moved to the West Bank where he was greatly transformed by the power of the gospel and the witness of other Christians. As he began following Christ, Khalil seized the challenge to love his "enemy" and gradually became capable of removing the bitterness and anger he felt toward both Jews and Muslims who had mistreated him.
Khalil knows firsthand how hatred can blind us from seeing the humanity of the other. For this reason, he works diligently to change minds, by educating his fellow Palestinians as well as outside observers of the conflict, to strive to see the good in the other – whether Jewish, Christian, or Muslim.
- And I want to introduce my dear friend, Khalil Sayegh, and for our conversation about what's its like to be a Palestinian follower of Jesus. Khalil, will you join me? One of the ways we got to know each other originally was that The Joshua Fund runs an annual retreat, both on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side for all the Israeli pastors and ministry leaders and their wives who are able to attend in a given year. Roughly, in any given year it's about 2/3 of them attend a several-day conference, studying the word of God, praying, worshiping together. It's called Preach the Word, Shepherd the Flock. To encourage, to refresh our Israeli brothers and sisters. We do the exact same retreat either a few days before or a few days later in the West Bank with the Palestinian pastors and ministry leaders and their spouses. And, roughly 95% of the Palestinian ministry and leadership attends that conference. We're hosted by the Palestine Evangelical Council as it were. They're our host and we are there to support, encourage. And Khalil has been one of the attendees, excuse me. And that's where we got to know each other at these Bible conferences and just sitting and having meals together. And then we started a project together and we launched... Well, I launched the All Israel News side and on our Advisory Board, Khalil became a founding member launching the All Arab News side. And we've done a lot of things, it's been an interesting year. We just finished our first year of operations. But he's also in graduate school now, here in Washington, so it's a particular joy to actually get to sit with you again and chat. Khalil, thank you. Yeah, start with your background. What's it like... What was it like for you to grow up in Gaza? What kind of family were you raised in and what did you think of Israel and the Jewish people? Because it's not obvious that you and I would be sitting together if I knew you a number of years ago.
- So, yeah, thank you Joel for having me. So, I was born and raised in the Gaza Strip to a family that are considered refugee. So my grandparents originally came from the city called Migdal in the southern part of Modern State of Israel today called Ashkelon. So, I grew up learning about this paradise that we lived in before 1948. In the words of Mahmoud Darwish, we lived in the paradise before '48, '48 we are in the fall-in. And now we are waiting for the restoration in the way the Palestinian narrative bring the things. And what is the restoration is the liberation of Palestine so it's to liberate the entire land of Palestine. In a sense, it's to kick out all the Jews there. So, I grew up-
- In a sense. Yeah, that's exactly what it is.
- And I grew up with such deep grievances for what happened in 1948 for what is the source of all the suffering I'm living through in the one hand because of history. On the other hand, it's day-to-day things that are happening. I'm going to UNRWA school, a particular schools for refugees. My parents are telling me about the horrible things that happen to us in '48. And my first interaction with the Jews was Second Intifada, Air Force is coming to the sky of Gaza and bombing places. Was terrified, looked to my mother and I said, "Who the hell is doing this?" And she said, "Well, it's the Jews."
- You were seven years old, right?
- I was only six or seven years old. So, this is my first interaction. So why not hate Israel? Why not hate the Jews when all that I'm educated about is a negative thing and what I'm experiencing day to day is not making sense to me and the people who are explaining it to me are explaining it in a particular narrative that make you even more angry to the Jews.
- In your school, even in church?
- Yep, it's everywhere. Because, as I said the historical narrative of Nakba is something that you are buying and then it continues. For us-
- Define Al Nakba term.
- Well, Nakba is an Arabic word that means catastrophe. And when we look at the Independence Day of Israel, 1948, we see it as a catastrophic thing. People lost their homes like my grandparents, people were kicked out. And in a sense there's a certain truth to that, there is a catastrophic consequence for the Palestinians. However, it's been stretched more than what it's supposed to be. And for us, it's like everything happening today is a continuation of Nakba. So, Air Force is coming to the skies of Gaza and bombing, it's not just self-defense or whatever. In our narrative, it's more like a continuation of ethnically cleansing the Palestinians that started with Nakba in '48. So, I grew up very angry, I grew up filled with hate. Yet, on the other hand, I also grew up with a lot of persecution from my Muslim peers because I'm Christian, right? Although I wasn't a believer but I was born to be, yeah.
- And you would describe yourself in that time as a radical.
- Well, I would. Because if you really believe that you want to kick all the Jews out of the land, if you really believe that rockets attack on civilians indiscriminately is okay and if you really accept or even justify suicide bombers, I would say you are a radical. And I believe I was although I was a kid, I don't think I was fully mature enough to make decisions but I would call myself an ex-radical in that sense.
- A radical Christian jihadist. Not born again but it's not just Islamist. There was a turning point. What was the turning point spiritually and... I mean, that was the key point of the spiritual.
- So, when Hamas controlled Gaza in 2006, everything shifted in the society in the Gaza strip, not to say that Gaza was a heaven on Earth before 2006, it was still a horrible place to be in but-
- And let's know, just for context, in 2005, Israel made the decision to pull completely out. There's not a single soldier or civilian living in Gaza as of the end of 2005, August of 20th, 2005. And then Hamas took over in '06.
- Sure. Matter of fact because we live in this era, it's very similar to what is happening in Afghanistan today. When I looked at the pictures of what happening in Afghanistan, I saw this famous picture of Taliban members taking off the pictures of uncovered women, I just remembered my neighborhood. I remembered Hamas doing the exact thing in Gaza. And for us, like just-
- A woman that wasn't wearing a veil.
- Yeah, that weren't wearing hijab. And for us in Gaza, just the Hamas singling that, it just telling you that this is the type of society we gonna have. It's Islamic Islamist society and people who are unveiled, people who are not Muslims are unwelcomed here. And this was a turning point for us as a Christian community there because all of a sudden even in my school I had to leave the part where I'm only persecuted from some people at school to being persecuted even by your own teachers who came to be Hamas members. And it turned really worse than that and after the first war between Hamas and Israel 2009 I decided to move to the West Bank looking for freedom. In the West Bank, it was just amazing to me coming to Ramallah, it's bigger city, more freedom. Comparing to Gaza, I mean very conservative Islamic society, there is alcohol, other stuff. And I thought that is freedom, right? Just get into alcoholism, start getting drunk every night. And I thought that this is the solution, this is liberty. But it just got me worse and worse in my own inner being and how I feel. And I turned 18 being totally... Have no meaning for my life and at this point two people who preached the gospel for me. For the first time in my life, never heard the gospel although I grew up as a Greek Orthodox Christian. And I've never read the Bible too. And they are preaching the gospel to me and challenge me to start reading the Gospel of John. And when I read the Gospel of John, man, something struck me about the personality of Jesus and I just fall in love with him. And I decided by myself, in my room that I wanna follow this God who is just amazing and I find myself falling to the ground and giving my life to Jesus. And this was the turning point that just changed all my morals and my point of views to everything and then led to a different perspective on the conflict as well.
- Did you have in your life men older than you, at least older than you in the faith who could help you grow in your faith, they disciple you both in the word of God but also how to connect the word of God to your moral life, your social life, your political life?
- Well, I would say on the moral basis, yes. I was really blessed to be mentored and pastored by Pastor Joseph Knight who you personally know and he's great friends still, now in California. He's an American Palestinian. He really brought a lot of time to my life, almost meeting every day, reading the Scripture together and teaching me how to live my life. But, sadly I would say the Palestinian Church when regard to the social-political issues, they are more on the side of Palestinian nationalists thing in the way they understand everything. And they wouldn't describe themselves this way. So, excuse me but they would say, they more adopt Palestinian liberation theology. But to me like Palestinian liberation theology is really a nationalist theology, it's looking at the Scripture and that theology from the perspective of a nationalist Arabist or Palestinian. So, that was a challenge for me. No pastor would really agree with what I would think because I just realized that... Not realized, they just came to different conclusions that the Palestinian church came to... And for a while it was a wilderness for me. I was alone, I didn't speak English at that time so I couldn't access sound theological perspectives on social and political issues. Had to learn English the hard way on YouTube so I can read books and yeah so-
- I think it went well, you got it.
- Thank you.
- I think one of the things that's important for you all to know about the Joshua Fund is that our role in coming alongside if we're wanted, if there's some way to be helpful and encouraging to our Palestinian evangelical brothers and sisters, we are not there to change their politics. Or their eschatology. Because eschatology we could say well, we'll probably unified all that, we believe that Jesus is coming back. After that it pretty much breaks down, right? Is God giving the land of Israel to the Jewish people as he cuts... Is there a millennial kingdom where there's a thousand years of Jesus reigning and Israel gets the whole land grant that that's just not a topic we talk about. I'm honest about what I believe and I'm not gonna be shy but I think one of the things that's important is, can you be a true born again follower of Jesus and disagree? Often people think you're betraying your tribe if you break bread literally or figuratively with someone who you have strong political or other types of disagreements or theological disagreements. And I would say you know, I mean you and I have a lot of areas of agreement but there's a lot of areas that we would say we probably don't agree, but we're not disagreeable. And I think that's a challenge both in the messianic body. There's huge theological differences. In the Palestinian believing community, there's huge differences but there's also all this political tension all around it. How have you navigated it because I think in many ways Khalil, you're not alone and you're not unique but it's difficult. I've watched our brothers and sisters on both sides of the green line, as if were struggled. Do I want to get to know a Palestinian Christian and does reconciliation mean, well sure as long as you surrender your theological and political views then I'll have fellowship, these are big challenges in our nurge of the woods as they say, whatever.
- I wouldn't claim I had it figured out. As you said it's such a complex issue but you and I definitely disagree in eschatology. I would define myself more into the covenantal side of things, I don't really... I'm not into prophecies and all things I had respect I think there is a what I would call the mystery of Israel and I don't claim to completely understand that or comprehend it, I think there is a mystery in there. And I personally don't think that I understood that mystery. And politics we also disagree. I really believe that Palestinians are people who deserve a state and should get it today if that's possible or plausible. I don't think it's possible unfortunately because of many other geopolitical reasons I wouldn't get into. But yeah, these are things we disagree on and it's okay to disagree on. But I really believe there are things that you cannot disagree on. And this is where I am very critical of our Palestinian Christian leaders and also messianic leaders. And this would be when you try to strip the other people from their humanity despite that you are not saying that you are. But here I would give you some examples. One of these Palestinian Liberation theologian statement that sadly most of the Evangelical and Protestant leaders have signed. It has this one statement where it says, although we support peaceful resistance against Israel, we respect all form of resistance. And resistance, the word mukadma, it means all sorts of attacks on Israel. This includes suicide attacks, this includes rockets attack that kill children and civilians. This is another just sort of war, this is terrorism. So if you are saying that you support all sorts of resistance, or you respect them although you are adhering to a peaceful resistance, I think you are stripping Israelis from their humanity. And this is where I cannot agree to disagree on. This is something that if you wanna be prophetic about, you have to speak to your people and say no, killing children, blowing up passes, blowing up... Beats up places in Jerusalem is not okay, should not be okay at all. And same on the other side when the Israelites speak about like, oh, well there's nothing called Palestinians. Well what about us like who are we? This is something where I feel like its first step leading to de-humanize the Palestinians. Because all of a sudden killing a Palestinian or taking his home or whatever is something that is okay and I don't think it is okay. Now whether two state solution, one state solution, all this stuff we can disagree on that, I don't have problem with all of that. As long as you are aware of the humanity of the other, as long as you are unwilling to strip them from their humanity and justify any form of terrorism whether it's from settlers, whether it's from Hamas or Fatah or whoever, this is the red line for me that-
- So why were you willing to attend, to preach the word, Shepherd the Flock conferences that we do in the West Bank? I don't wanna say where 'cause it's still a sensitive issue for security but why did you come knowing you've got a Jewish believer? You've got... I wasn't Israeli when we started it but I became, two sons in the army. That seems like... Didn't seem like the obvious group to come alongside and strengthen our passage brothers and sisters like... And many of the leaders were like, I don't think that's a good idea but they chose to do it,. But you didn't have to choose to come. Why didn't you?
- Well, I'm trying to remember first time I came, it was 2015, '16, I'm not sure of the... Or '14 even, I don't know when did you guys started but it was pretty early on. And I was still in the journey of searching for my theological understanding, for my political understanding. I was like 20 years old who is just have been two or three years in faith who is really fed up by the political situation, fed up by a leaders who are willing to do humanize the other... Are also frustrated by the amount of lies, I grew up thinking about the other side, right? I'm just here all the sudden seeing that Israelis look just much more like me than I thought. And it's frustrating that I grew up not thinking that. So I was willing to meet with everyone. Matter of fact first Israelis I ever met in my life were the settlers. People who are considered the right wing radicals. Which there's a lot of them are radicals but a lot of them are just nice, great people who I disagree with them completely on politics. And I think to an extent that maybe they should leave Judean Samaria, but they're great people, they're friends... So I would meet with everyone that was my position in there. And then I developed first I think a relationship with Jeremy and he just got to know him such a sincere great man of God and he helped me a lot through-
- One of the guys you served with under?
- Yeah, that's...
- I think that the other thing let's be clear since they've never been there is that we're a politics free zone. I talk about geopolitics but I don't even talk about that when we do the conference. This is a Bible retreat. The first year we talk through Titus verse by verse. And that was during Iraq War. And then the next year we went through, I think it was James. And then we went through 1st Thessalonians and we've been working our way through batches of Acts over the year. We're studying the word of God together. We're worshiping Arabic and English. Time of fellowship, prayer, lots of coffee, lots of baklava, it's all very good, almost too good. So it's really important that we just say, look, we all have our views but that's not what this is. This is here for spiritual, rich oxygen. And I think that has made it possible. I think there was always suspicion that we had a real agenda. Oh, when we... I think it was about 10 years ago we started. So you really are here just to turn us all in designing this. And that's not why we're there and you're here to make sure we all believe in the rapture and we all believe in the greater Israel and we all... No, we're here to serve. But, it's always interesting the numbers over time clicking up of the number of passion, even Jacome Ministry and leaders, pastors, and their wives, and a few key young leaders who only 40 came the first year. And I think last before COVID we were at about 120, 130 which represents about 95%, which builds a lot of trust. But I think in part of it is because it's a political free zone.
- No I agree on what I...
- That many political free zones in our area.
- Well to be honest, they were just debate in the inner evangelical Palestinian community about the conference. There are like just two years ago I think or three years ago there were this professor who wrote an article of don't go to this conference, it's dangerous and kind of to an extent inciting against it. This open the debate between the different leaders or even young people about like, who are these people and everyone kind of know who you are now, you're Zionist and dispensationalist all of that but-
- I'm the worst-case posture child and 21 years ago briefly, but I still... I did work for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is like writing a script for... We're never gonna work together.
- And that's is always cited in Arab article.
- I'm sure I get it.
- So they were this debate but people came to the conclusion especially people who attended that, despite the fact that this is what these people believe in, we are still gonna attend because we're not really talking about this stuff. And we sense the love. And this is very important, this is the love, this is the fellowship. And they sense that they are welcomed, respected, and this is very important to them.
- What's the Arabic word, Palestinian Arabic for dayenu, for this alone would be enough. Is there a word that sort of captures that sense?
- None of that I think-
- I think we'll have to come up with one. It would've been enough for you, for us to build a friendship and to you be part of, well ought to be a part of your life and it's your lives there we're coming to serve if it's considered truly service and loving. But then you went further and helped me figure out this idea. Like if I'm gonna start All Israel News, I have to start an All Arab News. I can't have this be my brand that I love both sides and wanna treat both sides with love and respect even if I disagree with either side on things. We have to start an All Arab News but I can't just start it as an Israeli. Like there needs to be a Palestine Arab at least advising us. I think it's a big deal that you helped us, advise us and continue to remain on our Advisory Board. Why did you do it? What do you... How do you see media bias? What is necessary? Why are these websites important? And why were you willing to take the risk of dealing with me?
- Well, I took the risk longer before that which I'm already like an outspoken about peace with-
- That's true, I failed to mention that you're also a fellow with a Philos Project which is really... Tell us a little bit about that as well just so you tie it together of your overall mission.
- Yeah, well I start with Philos. It's a nonprofit organization that is based in New York City and we are trying to advocate for positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. What we do is focused on Israel and its neighbor. We bring students and other key leaders to Israel and Palestinian territory, Jordan and Egypt for free trips, usual that they will be educated about their faith, geopolitical situation, all this sort of stuff. And the idea is to help people understand and to be involved better in how to help the Christian community, the Jewish people and all sorts of the the good guys in the neighborhoods. So I've been involved with that since years and a big part of what I did was gathering young Palestinians and Israeli Jews unbelievers together in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, and kind of trying to just discuss politics and trying to figure out how can we co-exist in this land because-
- So the site becomes part of that mission for you.
- How this lead to the media? This to just say that I was already on YouTube, I was already like some sort of... I'm already like, everyone knows who I am, what I believe. When you approached me I had to think about it to be honest 'cause this is not only the Israeli side of things but this is also Christian Zionist and all these things. So I was worried about that part. But I think it was the moment that it was such a historical moment with everything happening with United Arab Emirates, the sort of people you were having from United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Muslims-
- Some of the Advisory Board members are some of the most prominent and powerful Muslims in the region to serve on our Advisory Board. Sheikh Mohammad Alissa, he's the head of the Muslim World League, the largest non-profit, non-governmental Muslim organization on the planet in 139 countries. A senior advisor to the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates, Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi. So these were heavy hitters.
- So I was looking at the Palestinian situation at that time politically and I said, we are losing already. We are just tipping ourselves in the back, not the people are stepping us. We are just attacking United Arab Emirates, we're attacking Saudi Arabia. And these were the biggest funders of the Palestinian authorities for years. And I said, well, if all these people are joining this movement, we better do as Palestinians ourselves. And our leadership was clearly not joining this force. But I said at least we as Christians should, we should try at least. And this came at the moment when the international media were not covering the stuff happening in the Middle East as it's supposed to be covered. It was a lot of narrative, political narrative into it. And you could disagree with the peace with United Emirates, it was the most important thing or with the Palestinians would be most important. But one thing you can't deny, historical. One thing you can't deny that it could bring something good for the region. And as I argued before, it would bring good things to the Palestinians as it's already did by the way. Not a lot of people acknowledge that, but it did. It stopped the annexation. What else could have stopped the Benjamin Netanyahu from annexing the West Bank but United Arab Emirates were able to do. So this just pushed me more to join you. Not to mention our great friendship of course.
- Well, you can see friendship requires or can lead to trust. If you can begin to trust each other, then you say, listen, you're gonna occasionally write an article or do an interview for the site that I may disagree with. Why is that bad? Aren't we trying to provide a range of insight and opinion so that readers in English, we're only in English publication this point, all over the planet can go, I'm getting an understanding of that side and that dynamic, I don't mean a side politically or religiously but that side of the world, the Arab world in a way that I can't find anywhere else and we need to close. I wanna close in prayer for you. Look, I believe that the Palestinian people, I believe they exist. And Khalil is my friend. I think it is wrong. I hear it a lot, Palestinians are nuisance. That is just a political statement that really has no bearing and it's a sad statement. So I would encourage people not to use it. They exist, they've rights, they have needs. They're among the most if not the most marginalized people on the planet. You can say, yeah, some of that's comes from their political leadership. That's true but it's not the only truth. So my point is I think followers of Jesus Christ need to lean in and be the best friends of the Palestinian people. I don't think we have an exact political plan that we know exactly how to fix this thing, nobody else has figured it out so how are we gonna do it? But shouldn't the church come along and say to our brothers and sisters at least in Christ, we love you, we will stand with you, we will encourage you. And yes, if you need to have it out with me in front of everybody or in private or online, do, I can take it. And we're here. We love you and we need to stand with you. And basically I will say this one last thing, we'll close in prayer. When the rest of the world is going in the other direction, I think in any situation but certainly in the Middle East, I think followers of Jesus need to go up the one-way street in the wrong direction to love and come alongside people who feel helpless in the world. That's a terrifying, horrible, painful place to be. And you can ascribe motive to it and you can create blame but the question these are real people whom God loves. And when Jesus said go and make disciples in Jerusalem and Judea and Sumeria and the other end of the earth, Judea and Sumeria is the Israeli way of saying the West Bank. So, there's our mission set. Let's pray. Lord we love you, we're grateful that you love the Palestinian people, that you have a plan for them, that you are step-by-step, slowly, slowly bringing more Palestinians to faith in Jesus Christ. And you've got a conversation going on in the West Bank and Gaza and among Palestinians who live in the diaspora. What is our way forward? What is our hope and well you are that hope, you are that hope? And I just pray that you would continue to show The Joshua Fund how we can strengthen our brothers and sisters and be a force for peace and hope among the Palestinian people. And I thank you for Khalil, I thank you for his love for you and how much you love him. I thank you that you're creating an independent thinker in him. You're giving us great about how to navigate these issues and explain them to others and I just thank you for him. And as he continues his graduate work here in Washington, as he continues to write and to speak and to educate others, I just pray your great favor on him and your protection Spiritually, physically, emotionally, socially, I love him and I know that you love him. You made him, and you've got a great plan for him. Wow, thank you for this time to be together. And we pray in the name of our great king, the king who's coming to solve it all. And we trust you, we praise you, in Jesus name we pray, amen.
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