Children in Israel and the Palestinian Territories are going to sleep with a book of Bible stories about peace under their pillows, says Dina Katanacho, director of the Arab Israeli Bible Society based in Nazareth.
The colourful picture book in Arabic – containing 15 biblical stories, 15 stories of contemporary children, questions and prayer – is shaping the attitudes of the next generation, Dina said.
“The impact of this book was really big, because we were able to distribute it not only in our territory but with the help of the Palestinian Bible Society in the Palestinian Territory,” Dina said during a flying visit to Australia last week.
“There are even schools teaching it, and we have heard a lot of good testimony of children who are taking this book, putting it under their pillow and even their behaviour has changed.”
As director of the Arab-Israeli Bible Society since 2008, Dina ministers to a culturally Palestinian community of Christians of all denominations who number about 1.7 million, or 20 per cent of the Israeli population. She works in unity with two other Bible Societies serving the Israeli and Palestinian communities in Israel.
Bible Society Australia’s current appeal is for programmes by these Bible Societies which bring the hope and peace of Jesus to the traumatised children of the Holy Lands, including Israel, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
Dina says she was inspired to produce the children’s “Peace Bible” during the war between Gaza and Israel in 2014 when she was heartbroken by the scenes of pain and agony she saw on television.
“Even in my community, the level of anger and tension [between Jews and Arabs] increased during the war and we decided we can do something about it,” she said.
“So we said ’we can invest in the new generation by promoting peace mentality in our young children rather than war mentality’ because if you are not a follower of Christ, the normal reaction of people when there is war is revenge, hatred – because because they don’t have Christ. They don’t have the concept of loving your enemy.”
She says Christians have a unique opportunity to “practise our love muscles” in a context of hatred, war and revenge.
“When you are in a context of sick people, you need doctors. When you are in a context of hatred and wars and revenge, you need lovers,” she says.
“And I believe that the church is called, in our context, to love our enemies. We might hate people who love us, that is evil; we love people who love us, that is human; but when we love our enemies that is divine; and we would like to encourage people to be peacemakers and to love each other and to have the opportunity to follow our heavenly father by loving our enemies.”
Recently the Arab Israeli Bible Society produced and distributed a CD with extra activities such as puzzles and trivia. It hopes to finish an app of the Peace Bible by the end of the year, so that many more people can have access to it.
Having lived through the violence of six wars, and facing daily prejudice and oppression, Dina sees an urgent need for healing between the Arab and Jewish communities through the power of God’s word.
She recalls a two-month period during the Gaza War when she didn’t allow her three sons to play outside because there had been kidnappings of children from both sides of the conflict.
“This is an example of the level of tension that increases during wartime. Even when you are driving, you sense the anger – it’s more tense, it’s not easy. People do not trust each other, so imagine you are going to a place where people do not trust each other inside, on the same streets, so people from the Jewish town wouldn’t come to the Arab town, and vice versa, during all time of war.
“So that’s difficult when you are not trusting the person beside you because you never know who you will be facing. It can be anyone and anyone can hurt you.”
During that period, Dina would even hesitate to speak her own language, Arabic, for fear of endangering her life; nor would she visit a shopping mall where Jews and Arabs shopped together.
But God showed he could do wonderful things even in such times. Having been tempted to cancel an Alpha course in Jerusalem – “because it was endangering my life going through the road” – Dina decided to go ahead anyway and was surprised and delighted when three women came to faith during the course.
“I would like to tell Australian people that God is still at work in our community, that is full of war,” she says.
“Living in the context of a war zone, people many times think that there is no hope but the good news is that God is an active God – and he does wonderful things. There are a lot of stories telling how faithful God is.
“I would like you to know that there are ‘living stones’ in the Holy Land; not only ‘stones’, there are people who are followers of Christ and dearly love him and would like to do his will in his land, promoting the word of God and see a life transformed.”
Being female within a patriarchal society, Dina finds it most fruitful to focus on empowering women and families. As well as producing biblical materials for families and children, she runs outreaches, workshops for women, conferences for the whole family, Bible competitions and camps for children. Among the tools she produces is a magazine written by women for women, which is distributed not only through churches but also in hospitals and supermarkets.
“So this is how we reach people and children, with cooperation with the churches and organisations because we believe in unity and that we are all agents of God and we want to spread the kingdom of God in our land that is full of hatred and violence.”
One example of how God is at work was at an outreach event with the Anglican church last December, which attracted about 1300 people. From that event, there were three testimonies of people who were healed from cancer and several people accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour, and are being discipled by the church.
“So God is good and he has people everywhere, even in places that we never know and sometimes we don’t see. And he is faithful to do the work that is needed.”
As a woman, Dina faced many challenges after United Bibles Societies appointed her to the leadership role.
“In the beginning it was difficult, it wasn’t easy for me; I faced a lot of challenges. But by God’s grace I have realised that I have to build credibility and by God’s strength I was able after eight years to gain credibility within the community. We have now relationships with bishops and patriarchs from all denominations, who are coming to the Bible Society and partnering with us.”
Feeling called by God and knowing that he is in control empowers her to continue.
“I always say, ‘You are my boss, just lead me wherever you want and I will follow.’ So my calling and my sense of love for God keep me going.”