Israel attracts attention from Christians all around the world. Considering it is a country with 7.5 million people living in a tiny spot of land of 21,000 square kilometers (or 13,020 square miles), the interest is phenomenal.
The interest is in the mere fact that modern-day Israel (and for that purpose, the West Bank) is the exact location of the land that God chose to fulfill His redemptive plan in. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, lived most His life on earth and had the main events of His ministry happen in this small spot of land.
The names Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho and Capernaum are known to every Bible-believing Christian anywhere on the globe.
As a result, the Holy Land (or the “Land of the Holy,” as some prefer to call it) is an attraction to pilgrims who come by the hundreds of thousands annually to walk in Jesus’ footsteps, to visit the exact locations of familiar milestones in His life. They read the relevant Bible passages, reflect and understand better the event at the specific place after witnessing the tangible monument of dead stones.
However, a story that rarely comes on the radar of Christians in the West is that of the living stones — the Christians who live in Israel today. It is the exciting story of God’s work among the faithful in the land. They are the real witnesses for Jesus in the land He lived and died in and was resurrected from.
These are the Arab and Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel. In recent years, the Lord has blessed the community of the faithful in the Holy Land. New churches and meetings are being opened, and a new fresh spirit of cooperation between the churches and assemblies (Arab and Jewish, too) is evident. However, with blessing come hardships. For years, Jewish Orthodox and (to a lesser extent) Muslim extremists have attacked Christians and Messianic Jews, slandering them publically, committing violent acts against them, disrupting baptisms or church services and vandalizing meeting spaces. The observer cannot help but notice that a higher level of actions against the faithful has been witnessed in the last couple of years.
Two and a half years ago, a Palestinian Bible Society worker was kidnapped and then murdered by an Islamic extremist group in Gaza. Before community of the faithful in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza could grasp this, Narkis Street Baptist Church in Jerusalem was burned by a Jewish extremist group.
Last March, a son of a Messianic Jewish missionary was hurt badly by explosives put on the door of the family’s home in Ariel.
In the meantime, these attacks leave the community of the faithful united and focused on its mission.
In addition to being an easy target for extremists, the community of the faithful suffers from marginalization by the majority groups. Arab evangelicals and Messianic Jews are not part of the Jewish establishment. Neither are they part of the dominant Muslim majority among the Arabs. Even the liturgical churches, which constitute the majority among Christians, marginalize the evangelical churches.
Baptists are one group of these faithful believers. 2011 will mark the centennial of modern-day Baptist ministry in the Holy Land.
It all began when a young Palestinian man by the name of Sukri Mussa, who was originally from Zefat in Upper Galilee, was baptized in 1909 into the fellowship of First Baptist Church, Dallas. Later Mussa was sent as a missionary to Palestine. On May 10, 1911, Mussa baptized a devout local believer by the name of Louis Hanna in wadi El-Lamon near Zefat.
The Baptists in Israel see that event as the beginning of Baptist work in the country. Several events will be held in 2011 to mark 100 years since that event.
Baptists constitute only around 3,000 people in Israel, but they are a vibrant church and join with other evangelicals and Messianic Jews to serve the Lord and lift His banner high in His own land.
There are 20 Baptist churches, and they are members of the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel. They are scattered all around the country from Ramle and Jerusalem in the south to Ramah and Acre (Akko) in the north. Most of these churches consist of Arabic-speaking believers. In other churches, services are conducted in Hebrew, Pilipino and Russian.
Faithful to their tradition and based on the great commandment, Baptist churches are keen on evangelism and have planted churches in several villages and towns. The Association of Baptist Churches in Israel is led by chairman Monther Naum and Secretary Bader Mansour.
In a country hurting from hatred and struggle, the Baptists are also a source of reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. They are engaged heavily in the reconciliation ministry and strive to form “the one new man in Christ.”
The Baptist community is known around the country mostly for Nazareth Baptist School (NBS), a K–12 school with around 1,000 students. NBS is the only evangelical school in Israel and has been in the top schools for its scholastic achievements for decades. Recently it was rated fourth nationwide. It has been producing high caliber graduates who fill key positions both in the ministry and the marketplace.
NBS is one of the few places in the whole Middle East that the gospel is shared in chapel and Bible classes for all students, 25 percent of whom are Muslim.
NBS has been struggling with the challenges of an aging and highly crowded facility. The school accommodates about 900 students and staff on a campus of three-quarters of an acre as well as another 120 people in a rented building nearby. The average number of students in a classroom is 37.
NBS has launched a campaign to relocate the school to a larger facility in the suburbs of Nazareth. Huntsville’s Dick Thomassian of TIME Ministries and Whitesburg Baptist Church, Huntsville, are partnering with NBS in this venture. A new, exciting evangelical venture led by the Baptist church in Israel is Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary. In partnership with International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic, and Spurgeon’s College in London, the center provides a theology degree for those called to ministry. It is led by President Bryson Arthur. A few Southern Baptist representatives serving with the International Mission Board are teaching in the seminary.
In light of the unique place of the Holy Land, it is essential that the witness for the Lord there be strong. The Jewish and Muslim hegemony is a challenge for that witness. Baptist Christians in Israel feel like a minority among a minority, and the support of the extended worldwide family of believers is essential to empower them.
The support can come in the form of prayer for the forgotten believers in the Holy Land. It can also come through visits with the living stones of local believers as Baptist groups visit the country and partnerships for joint ministries.
The Baptist community in Israel also provides opportunities for students to join in missions trips, for lecturers and teachers to take sabbaticals and joint evangelistic ventures, etc.
This tiny minority of Baptists is struggling to make a difference for Christ in the midst of a complicated political situation involving hatred, violence and despair.
Joining forces with the Baptist community will bring great advancement for the kingdom of the Lord and will make the living stones shine brightly to reflect the Son of righteousness and the Light of the World.
It was in Nazareth that Philip answered the question of his brother Nathanael, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?,” with the splendid answer, “Come and see.” We echo this call today: Come and see!
People from all races and nations have come to see what came out of Nazareth. It was Jesus — the Nazarene. Come and see what the Nazarene has established in His own hometown and region.
By Botrus Mansour
EDITOR’S NOTE — Botrus Mansour is a lawyer and the general director of Nazareth Baptist School. He also serves as an elder in Local Baptist Church in Nazareth.