Marilyn Stern and Gary C. Gambill
Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, spoke in an extended interview to Middle East Forum Radio host Gregg Roman on May 6 about his organization’s mission to promote positive Christian engagement in Middle Eastern cultures.
Founded in 2014, the Philos Project differs from many other Christian organizations concerned with the Middle East in that it is non-denominational, welcoming not only both Catholics and Protestants, but also adherents of eastern churches. “Our baseline is the Nicene Creed,” said Nicholson, referring to the fourth century statement of faith that is foundational to all these denominations. Philos, named after the Greek word for friend, aims to build “values-based friendships” with “people who are like-minded, who believe in pluralism, who believe in strong bonds between East and West.”
The two countries that feature most prominently in the project’s policy agenda are Israel and Lebanon. “It cannot help but be true that a Jewish state and quasi-Christian state would resonate for America, a country founded on Judeo-Christian principles.”
“Israel as a project, meaning this national movement of the Jewish people to reestablish its sovereignty, is perhaps the best thing that’s happened to this region in the last 100 years,” said Nicholson. Because of its significance as the birthplace of Christianity, the Jewish state is a “unique gateway for people outside to engage with the region as a whole.”
Unlike a number of other American Christian groups that believe the establishment of Israel is a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, the Philos Project is agnostic about the theological significance of its birth:
There are people in our network who see Israel as holding theological significance. There are people in our network who absolutely 100% think Israel is theologically insignificant, but still for historical and cultural reasons think there’s a moral justification for caring about Israel. So I sometimes say that when it comes to Israel … there’s lots of on-ramps to the highway.
Asked to comment on Christian organizations that agitate against Israel, such as the Telos Group and Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), Nicholson noted that there is “a long tradition of disagreement within Christianity about the Jewish people and where they fit.” The approach these groups take is rooted in replacement theology, or supersessionism, which holds that Christianity superseded God’s covenant with the Jews, who “have no role whatsoever in this story.”
In contrast to many evangelicals, Nicholson does not believe this view is un-Christian – it was “the majority approach for Christians for almost two thousand years when it comes to the Jewish question” – but he calls it “ahistorical” and “acultural”:
[T]hat kind of philosophy as a whole … approaches the question of Israel … as if Christians and Jews have as much to do with each other as Christians and Burmese, right? That the Jews are not special. They’re just like every other people … [or] if they are special, they’re uniquely evil, because Jesus was theirs and they rejected him.
Consequently, Zionism, a “unique project for the Jewish people to protect them in their homeland,” is “seen by these people as divisive and as something against the universal spirit of Christianity.”
To counter “this bad tendency to favor everyone but the Jews,” the Philos Project founded Passages, a project to bring Christian college students “with leadership potential” to Israel for a nine-day trip at nominal cost. Nicholson sees a “whole generation of kids” who go off to college and in classes hear “Israel is bad, America is bad, Christians are bad.” In the few years since the Passages program was established, Philos Project has taken approximately ten thousand Christians to Israel to educate them and “reconnect these kids to the origins of their faith.”
In Lebanon, the Philos Project prioritizes “the security, safety, prosperity of Christian and other non-Muslim minority communities.” Nicholson stressed the importance of reminding American policymakers that “Lebanon is the closest thing to a Christian country in the Middle East,” analogous in many ways to Israel.
In 1920, the Christians of Mount Lebanon “were looking to the French for [a] Balfour Declaration” along the lines of the assurance Britain gave to the Jews. “While the territory was expanded to include Shia and Sunni Muslims, the real point of Lebanon was to provide a safe haven for Christians in the region, even as these new Arab states began to get set up.”
The Philos Project brings journalists, policymakers, and church leaders to the region to understand the need to protect Lebanese Christians and oppose Iran’s influence in the country through its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. Nicholson suggested that while U.S. involvement in some of the other countries in the region yields “diminishing returns” because of differences over values, “robust U.S. engagement with Lebanon is just as much within our national interests as Israel.” Significantly, “all of our regional interests converge” in Lebanon:
Our support for Israel on Lebanon’s border, our concern for energy in the region – you’ve seen the discover of natural gas deposits offshore in Lebanon – the Sunni-Shia conflict, Iranian influence. The whole cause of religious freedom, peace, coexistence – all of it is in Lebanon.
Nicholson noted that there is a large group within Lebanon who oppose Hezbollah and Iran. “There are a lot of good people in Lebanon who … share our worldview … probably more than fifty percent, but no one is willing to put their life on the line … in order to dislodge this foreign entity from the state’s politics.” The Philos Project’s task is in educating policymakers about how essential it is “to drive a wedge” between the people and the Iran-dominated power structure.
Although U.S. aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces has become a contested issue in policy circles, Nicholson primarily worries about the human cost if Lebanon collapses. He sees the possibility that the Hezbollah regime will “implode” under the “combined pressure of economics, of politics, of Hezbollah’s amassing of more and more … sophisticated weapons,” and asks, “Are we prepared for that moment or will this just be a failed state? … If you care about minority rights in the Middle East, and particularly of Christian rights, that’s a … fearsome scenario.”