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‘We will not vanish’: How a Palestinian American pastor defies stereotypes | Israel-Palestine conflict

‘We will not vanish’: How a Palestinian American pastor defies stereotypes | Israel-Palestine conflict

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New York City, United States – A metallic blur streaked past Khader Khalilia’s ear. The bullet, so close he could hear it, smashed into a painting of Romeo and Juliet on the wall behind him.

As more shots rang out, Khalilia and his family fell to the floor of their house in Beit Jala, just outside Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Khalilia draped his body over his younger brother Elios to shield him. They were caught in the crossfire between the Israeli military and a Palestinian resistance group.

“I was cursing, praying at the same time,” said Khalilia, recalling that afternoon in 2003, when he was 23 and still a college student. “Then I said to myself, if we ever survive, I will go and serve you, Lord.”

It was a vow he would follow through with. Last year, pastor Khalilia marked one decade leading Redeemer-St John’s Lutheran Church in Dyker Heights, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York.

But over the last nine months, Israel’s war on Gaza has thrown into relief Khalilia’s identity as a Palestinian pastor. He is one of the few Palestinian faith leaders in New York City — and as far as he knows, the only one to lead a Christian church.

That visibility has demanded Khalilia become an ambassador of sorts, dispelling misconceptions and educating New Yorkers about what it means to be Palestinian.

Some of the people he meets view his very identity — as a Palestinian Christian — to be a contradiction: They think all Palestinians are Muslim.

“When I tell them I’m a Palestinian American, Christian Lutheran pastor, they get so confused. But actually, it’s not confusing,” Khalilia said.

An inherent part of his life and job is dislodging hurtful ideas about Palestinian people, an Arab ethnic group that spans multiple religions, including Christianity, Islam and the Druze faith.

Khalilia is sometimes asked, “When did you convert to Christianity?” His reply is the same every time.

“I always tell them, ‘On the day of Pentecost, 2,000 years ago.’ Two thousand years ago, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Palestine.” Christianity, as he points out, has its roots in his homeland.

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