Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder

Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center: An ADL Backgrounder


Sabeel, a Palestinian Christian organization based in Jerusalem with support groups in the UK and North America, is a driving force behind the campaign by mainline Protestant churches to divest from Israel. Its U.S.-based affiliated group, Friends of Sabeel in North America (FOSNA), has also supported an anti-Israel students' divestment campaign. 

Sabeel regularly organizes events that promote its anti-Zionist theology, including conferences in Columbia, South Carolina and Pasadena, California in 2008, and in Boston and Cleveland in 2007. It is not unusual for Sabeel conferences to feature speakers who make charges of Israeli racism, oppression, and human rights violations, often promoting boycott and sanctions efforts as punishment for what they see as Israel's apartheid-like policies.

While Sabeel claims to promote "a non-violent vision for addressing the conflict between Palestinians and the state of Israel," and to support a two-state solution to the conflict, Sabeel's head also refers to it as an interim solution, "a first step that hopefully will lead to the formation of the one state" -- a position that any parties genuinely interested in a long-lasting peace in the Middle East recognize as irrational and impossible.  Sabeel has also been influential in generating hostility towards Israel, and its use of theologically charged accusations has belied its professed passion for reconciliation.

Sabeel rejects Zionism on theological grounds. It has promoted the idea that Zionism is based on a false reading of the Bible and that it stands for injustice and in opposition to God. In addition, Sabeel often compares the Palestinians to the crucified Jesus, and Israel to his murderers, alluding to the ugly and false deicide charge against all the Jewish people - a concept rejected by prominent historians and repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.


In his paper, The Zionist ideology of domination versus the reign of God, the organization's Jerusalem-based director, Rev. Naim Ateek, compares what he calls the "powers of darkness" against which Jesus fought to "the evil structures that have dominated the Palestinians for the last hundred years."

In his Easter Message in spring 2001, Ateek described the political situation in these words: "It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him…Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull."

Sabeel (the full name is Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center) was founded in 1990 to serve as "an ecumenical grassroots liberation theology movement among Palestinian Christians." According to the group, its purpose was to find a theological response to the realities of "occupation and oppression of our people," as "many of the Palestinian Christians wanted to abandon the Bible, particularly the Old Testament which was being used to justify their suffering."

Sabeel conferences often feature strong anti-Israel themes. In an effort to discredit the Israeli state by accusing it of apartheid practices against Palestinians, for example, Sabeel held a conference in Boston in October 2007 titled "The Apartheid Paradigm in Palestine-Israel: Issues of Justice and Equality." During his keynote address, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu appealed to Jews to stand up against what he called Israeli oppression of Palestinians, charging that the separation fence is an "illegal wall that has encroached on Palestinian land," and that Israel employs practices that "even apartheid South Africa had not…for example collective punishment." 

In April 2004
, Sabeel hosted a conference in Jerusalem titled "Challenging Christian Zionism: Theology, Politics and the Palestine-Israel Conflict."  The conference had more than 600 participants from 32 countries, including members of FOSNA and representatives from the U.S. Presbyterian Church, according to organizers. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was Anglican Reverend Stephen Sizer, author of Christian Zionism: Justifying Apartheid in the Name of God. According to Sizer's theological concept, God's special connection with the Jews becomes irrelevant following the appearance of Jesus, and with it their entitlement to the land. Furthermore, the Jews' exile becomes part of the necessary order of things. The Jews, according to Sizer, deserve to be exiled because they refused to accept Jesus, "as a judgment for their failure to recognize Him as the Messiah," in addition to their otherwise sinful ways. Contemporary Jews living in Israel, according to Sizer, are just as sinful and rebellious as their forefathers and deserve the same fate: 

"The present brutal, repressive and racist policies of the State of Israel would suggest another exile on the horizon rather than a restoration…. how sinful do you need to be to get to be on God's hit list?"

FOSNA supports the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM), an umbrella organization that campaigns to bring universities and colleges in the U.S. to divest from companies that have business connections to Israel. The PSM views Zionism as a racist ideology and declares it would not condemn Palestinian terrorism. FOSNA co-sponsored the PSM's first national conference at Berkeley in February 2002 as well as its fourth national conference at Duke in October 2004.

In Their Own Words:

  • "Many of the Palestinian Christians wanted to abandon the Bible, particularly the Old Testament which was being used to justify their suffering. However, as Christians the Bible is essential to our faith, so it was necessary to find in the Bible the God of justice, the God who is concerned with the oppressed, who is concerned with the Palestinians as the oppressed of this land….

    "By learning from Jesus - his life under occupation and his response to injustice - this theology hopes to connect the true meaning of Christian faith with the daily lives of all those who suffer under occupation, violence, discrimination, and human rights violations." (Sabeel's Purpose Statement )

  •  "As a Christian, I know that the way of Christ is the way of nonviolence and, therefore, I condemn all forms of violence and terrorism whether coming from the government of Israel or from militant Palestinian groups…

    "The Palestinians did not begin their resistance to the occupation with suicide bombings….  There were no suicide bombings before the Oslo Peace Process.  It is the result of despair and hopelessness…

    "They [young Palestinians] have been stripped of their human dignity, their only possibility for existence is to exist as slaves under an Israeli apartheid system of domination.  They feel they have no options and very little to lose….

    "The Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is evil and unjust.  It must be resisted for the sake of both the oppressed as well as the oppressors….

    "We condemn suicide bombings because they are trapped with the same violent logic exercised and perpetrated by the Israeli government.  It is based on the law of revenge…

    "It is probable that Prime Minister Sharon (and the right wing religious extremist ministers and settlers around him including some Christian Zionists) believes that the war against the Palestinians can be justified biblically... Similarly, the suicide bombers believe that… they are fighting in the cause of God by ridding their land of the injustice….

    "Our basic problem with both lies in their concept of God.  We reject any understanding of God that reflects war, violence, or terrorism….

    "We believe that God in Christ is there with us. Christ is not in the tanks and jet fighters, fighting on the side of the oppressors (although many Jewish and Christian Zionists believe that), God is in the city of Gaza, in the Jenin camp and in the old city of Nablus, Ramallah, and Bethlehem suffering with the oppressed." (Ateek, Cornerstone, Sabeel's newsletter, summer 2002)

  • "The suffering of Jesus Christ at the hands of evil political and religious powers two thousand years ago is lived out again in Palestine. The number of innocent Palestinians and Israelis that have fallen victim to Israeli state policy is increasing.

    Here in Palestine Jesus is again walking the via dolorosa….

    "It seems to many of us that Jesus is on the cross again with thousands of crucified Palestinians around him…. Palestinian men, women, and children being crucified. Palestine has become one huge golgotha. The Israeli government crucifixion system is operating daily. Palestine has become the place of the skull." (Ateek, Easter Message, April 6, 2001)

  • "There is no 'persecution' of Christians or Muslims except by the Israelis. Christians and Muslims stand side by side in the fight against injustice and their struggle for a Palestinian state….

    "Occasional incidents of conflict are being hyped as a way of diverting people's attention from the real causes of conflict here. The real barrier to peace is the extremist Israeli government. But the Israeli government, together with these fundamentalist Christians, has been successful in deflecting attention from its unjust policies by claiming that Islam is the enemy. For Palestinian Christians, the Israeli government is the oppressor, not Islam… Palestinian Christians have lived with Islam for 1,400 years….

    "The narrative Israel tells of itself on its 50th anniversary suppresses, distorts and essentially tries to destroy the Palestinians' narrative of their own history. The history of Zionism has demonstrated that in order for an Israeli narrative to continue in Palestine, the Palestinians' narrative must end. If there is to be an Israel, there can't be a Palestine….

    "This [founding of Israel] happened at a time when Palestinians were finally able to hope that they might achieve independence from the British mandate--that they might achieve a state in which Jews, Christians and Muslims could live together. Instead, 77 percent of their land was taken away from them, and it became an exclusively Jewish state. So the dream for independence and a religiously pluralistic state was shattered….

    "Palestinians don't feel that the events of the Holocaust, something that happened in Europe and in which Palestinians played no role, should allow the world to gloss over what Israel is doing to Palestinians…. Does this give the Jews the right to persecute Palestinians in retaliation for Nazi atrocities? Is Israel willing to acknowledge its own wrongs against the Palestinians?" (Christian Century, June 17, 1998, interview with Ateek)

    ·         "For many years the Palestinians rejected the establishment of the state of Israel because it was founded on the denial and violation of Palestinians' rights." (Sabeel's "Call for morally responsible investment")

    ·         "We categorically reject Christian Zionist doctrines as false teaching that corrupts the biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation.

    We further reject the contemporary alliance of Christian Zionist leaders and organizations with elements in the governments of Israel and the United States that are presently imposing their unilateral pre-emptive borders and domination over Palestine." ("The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism," August 25, 2006, posted to Sabeel's Web site)


    ·         "Sabeel is accused of being anti-Semitic because we dare to criticize the policies of the state of Israel….

    "Sabeel uses the language of liberation theology. That theology speaks with words such as oppressed and oppressor; it speaks of suffering and crucifixion — biblical images that relate to the experience of brutality and the misuse of power." ("An open letter from Friends of Sabeel to our supporters and international media," Richard K. Toll, head of FOSNA)


    ·         "This is a call to Christians to be alert and to recognize and identify the powers that operate around them. It is also a challenge to resist the powers and struggle against them by the power of God. These destructive powers are forces of darkness that undermine life itself. They must be resisted with the full armor of God….

    "Let me now apply my words to the evil structures that have dominated the Palestinians for the last hundred years. I believe that the background to the Zionist movement was good, but it got corrupted…

    "We would expect religious Jews to use the best values their religion can offer to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. What happened was the total opposite…. Religion was used to oppress the Palestinians…. The Hebrew Bible has been translated into a structure of domination instead of a structure of justice and peace. Even God has been Zionized. (Ateek, "The Zionist Ideology of Domination versus the reign of God," February 22, 2001


    ·         What kind of God exists? Is it a god of war and vengeance, a tribal god who chooses one people, the Jews, at the expense of another people, the Palestinians? For Palestinian theologians, the true god is a god of justice, truth and peace for all peoples, a god who calls all people into relations of justice and peace with each other." (Speaker at a Sabeel conference in Canada, The Ottawa Citizen, November 9, 1998)