Dina Katanacho is an anomaly. She is an Arab, Palestinian Christian who God is using to bring about major reform in the way women are treated in Israel. Today, in Part 1 of our interview, she talks about her leadership journey–her major struggles and triumphs as a female Christian leader in one of the most politically and socially oppressive places on earth for women.
Dina, can you tell me a little about your leadership journey?
It is a long story of how I became a leader. I was born in a Greek Orthodox family, but at five years old, I started going to an evangelical school. As a teenager, God started using me in counseling other teens. At 18, I knew I lacked knowledge and wisdom, and I started looking for them. I read more than 70 books in two months—which is something unusual here in the Middle East because we do not have access to materials to read as you do in your country.
I decided to submit my life completely to him, and went through a process of decisions that led me to experience his Lordship over my life. His Spirit filled me and I went on several short mission trips. I went to Spain where I was involved in evangelizing to Muslims. God’s hand was upon me in that ministry, and those who saw God’s hand upon me asked me to train others. While getting my bachelor’s degree, I told my roommate about God and eventually she became a believer. We did a Bible study in our room. At first, we had four and then we became ten. I didn’t know it was the beginning of something bigger.
When my husband and I married, we were praying about what we needed to do and hoped that my husband could go to U.S. to continue studies. He was accepted to a PhD program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and we lived on campus, and there I was exposed to wonderful local and international people. I saw how God is doing great things out there, and not just in my context. After that, I wanted to serve God. I prayed, “God, okay, what is the next step for me? What is your plan? Teach? A feel something different coming.”
After two years, we were back in Israel and the Arab Israeli Bible Society was restructuring the work in Israel and they were looking for a new director. They interviewed many people in my area—I didn’t apply. One of the people involved in the appointment came to our house frustrated they had not found anyone suitable. Later, his boss came to talk to me, but I had no idea what they were thinking. They asked me to come to Jerusalem—three hours away—for an official interview. After the five hour interview, they told me I had been accepted. I said, “Accepted to what? I must pray!” So I prayed, and my husband said, “You will have challenges as a woman, but remember, I am here to support you.” God gave me that and I would not be able to continue without it. My husband is in my camp. He is a gift. Really a gift. Not all men in my context are like that.”
It is necessary to understand the background to understand the nature of our work. When you live in Israel, when people ask who you are, it is a complex question. Each part of my identity can be charged with a myth. When I say I am Christian, people ask, “Are there Christians in the Middle East?” Christianity started in the Middle East! Jesus was raised here in Nazareth, lived his life here. There are more than 15 million Christians in the Middle East. I can trace my family back to the 1st century, when my ancestor gave his life for Jesus Christ. I am proud of this heritage.
The second label is Palestinian. Many people get confused. How can you be Christian and Palestinian? Are not all Palestinian terrorists? We know this from media and ignorance. I am Palestinian and I serve God. To be Palestinian is like being American—we have our own way of doing marriage, cooking, culture. It’s not my fault I was born a Palestinian. It’s not a sin.
The third label is Arab. To many people, Arab is equal to being Muslim, though Arab predates Muslim if you read history. Not all Arabs are Muslim.
The fourth label is that I am an Israeli. My generation is Israeli, we are Israeli citizens and we have rights. We are not first citizens, and I don’t serve in the army like the Jews, but I elect and pay taxes.
The fifth label is that I am a woman. Women do not have it easy in the Middle East—we are the most disadvantaged sector of the community and are subject to unique social pressure. The social institutions, their religion, keeps them marginalized in school, in the workplace. They encounter domestic abuse and honor killings, even in places like Nazareth, with all the institutions, schools, all the educated people, you have these cases.
This means that women lack political representation and their perspectives and needs are not presented. Some women live in denial. Some might be skilled and educated, and men need to learn to appreciate the contribution of women.
So, this is my strategy in ministry: to empower women and families. I ask myself questions: What is the role of the church in empowering this marginalized sector of the church? How can the word of God empower them? How am I supposed to serve in this culture with all these challenges?
Seventy percent of church members are women and half the church is penalized. I was appointed by a foreigner and the first thing I faced was opposition to my leadership because of my gender. That is the culture, and I realized I needed to find a way to lead as a woman that is wise. Now, I don’t face these challenges. It’s still hard to be a woman, but I’ve gained credibility. No more boycott, many people coming for ministry. That is God, and all the glory goes to Him.