A few days after a brutal knife attack outside Jerusalem left U.S. tourist Kristine Luken dead and British-born Israeli Kay Wilson severely injured, members of an Anglican church in Jerusalem, to which both women had ties, is trying to return to some sense of normalcy.
Last Thursday, the day before Christmas Eve, over 100 people gathered at Christ Church, an Anglican church in the capital's Old City, for a memorial service in honor of Luken, an American evangelical Christian who frequently visited Israel and used to worship with the community. The next evening, the congregants gathered for Christmas Eve service as they do every year, surrounded by the usual throngs of curious Israeli-born onlookers, but made no mention of the attack that briefly thrust Israel's Anglican and Jewish-messianic communities into a media whirlwind.
"During the Christmas service they didn't talk about it. They invited outside visitors, so they made a separation between [the memorial and the holiday celebration]," said Tal Silver, a Kazakhstan-born Jew and employee of Christ Church who was a close friend of Luken. "Of course, for those who knew Kristine and Kay this was not Christmas as usual. But for me, this is just the way our lives are: one day you mourn and everyone is in tears, and the next day there is joy again."
Luken, a 44-year-old Virginia native, had recently moved to Britain to work for an evangelical group called the Church's Ministry among Jewish People, or CMJ, which promotes Christianity among Jews. Located across from the Tower of David, near Jaffa Gate, the Christ Church officially belongs to the Anglican Church in Israel but is also affiliated with CMJ. Headquartered in Nottingham in the U.K., the Ministry among Jewish People seeks to "encourage Jewish people to come to faith in Yeshua (Jesus ) as their Messiah," according to its website.
Israeli law prohibits proselytizing minors and offering financial incentives for conversions, but people familiar with Jewish-Christian relations in Israel say that even missionaries not violating any laws are not welcome by Israeli authorities and often face difficulties when trying to extend their visas.
Wilson, a Messianic Jew who immigrated to Israel at age 16, is the main educator for Shoresh Study Tours, which guides Christian pilgrims in Israel.
According to reports, she and her friend Luken were walking in a forest near the Moshav Mata on December 18, when they were approached by two Arabs asking for water. Wilson told them, "Yalla, bye," after which the men left, only to return to stab the women several times with a knife. Wilson, who was stabbed 12 times in her back and chest, pretended to be dead while she heard Luken, who was lying next to her, dying from her wounds, she said last week while recovering in a Jerusalem hospital.
Luken's burial is scheduled to take place in West Virginia this Sunday. Wilson, 46, was released from the hospital earlier this week and is currently staying with friends in the center of the country.
"It was just an incredible shock," said Rev. David Pileggi, the minister of Christ Church. "We were just weeping. I would describe it as one wave of sadness after another. We still have not recovered from this by any means."
'Nobody took the story at face value'
Pileggi said Wilson, who lives in Givat Ze'ev, is one of the best educators he has seen because she "gets the message across to Christian groups about the Jewishness of Jesus and our need to understand Jesus within a Jewish context." Wilson is also an accomplished jazz pianist and rides a motorcycle, he added. "She doesn't fit anyone's stereotype. She's a character, an incredible personality."
Frustrated by some press coverage following the attack, which church leaders say was sensationalist and often incorrect, several senior staff and members of the Anglican and messianic communities declined to be interviewed for this article.
"We got burned," Pileggi said, referring to articles in Israel's press that speculated whether Wilson's account of the event was true. Several potential alternative scenarios circulated, including the two women getting into a fight with each other.
"What was difficult for us was that nobody took the story at face value," he explained. "Having known Kay Wilson for many years, I know that she is extremely straight. I understand the police have to investigate every angle, but why the press had to try to look for some kind of scandalous angle here - where there really is none - is beyond me."
In a press release following Luken's death, the Church's Ministry among Jewish People, the U.K.-based missionary organization for which she worked, stated it would "continue to share the gospel with the Jewish people and to work for forgiveness and reconciliation in Israel."
Pileggi, 54, says that Christ Church is an independent legal entity from Church's Ministry among Jewish People although the two are affiliated with each other. He acknowledges there were cases in the past where individuals working for Christ Church did engage in missionary work, but he strongly denies that his community has a policy of proselytizing Jews.
"We live as a community in the context of a renewed and reborn state of Israel and we also live as a minority within a very large number of Jewish communities," Pileggi told Anglo File, sitting on a bench in his church, where a Christmas tree stands next to menorah and inscriptions in Hebrew can be seen on the stained glass and the wooden altar. "I'm not sure we would talk or act necessarily in the same way as they would in the U.K. or the U.S. We have a different set of priorities and understanding of how we live out our faith here."
The Christ Church - which was completed in 1849 and is the oldest protestant house of prayer in the Middle East - has about 80 congregants today. Most of them are long-term expatriates - many of whom are married to Israeli Jews - and work as nurses or for NGOs in the West Bank, Pileggi said.
There are also a few Christian Arabs and "one or two" messianic Jews who attend the services, which are held in English. Every Saturday, a community of 100 Hebrew-speaking messianic Jews gathers in the recently renovated church to worship.
Besides the church and a nearby guesthouse, the community also operates the Anglican International School Jerusalem. Many of the teachers are Jews, and some of the 225 students are the children of senior Palestinian Authority officials.
Pileggi said Israelis have an image of church members sneaking around and converting Jews. "I have absolutely no interest in any Jew becoming an Anglican, God forbid," said Pileggi with a laugh.
"There is no outreach program, people come here and ask questions. If they don't ask questions, I don't answer." However, if Jews approach the community interested in learning about Jesus, it will not turn them away, as evangelical tradition obligates them to be "witnesses" of the Gospel, added Pileggi, a Florida native who moved to Jerusalem 30 years ago because he "felt an overwhelming sense that I had to go to Israel."
Despite hostile comments by Internet talkbackers and bloggers - some of whom hoped "all the soul-snatchers out there share [Luken's] fate" - Pileggi said he and his community personally encountered little malevolence. "If there is hostility, it's generally just for being a Christian, not for being a part of CMJ," he said. "We feel some hostility, but on the whole Israeli society is either tolerant of Christians or indifferent. We're certainly not a persecuted minority."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now