A strange phenomenon is occurring. Despite a growing awareness of the persecuted church around the world, it seems like the plight of the church in Israel is practically off the radar.”
I happened to be a guest at a good evangelical church on the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. I heard many compelling reports before I got up to speak. Since there was no mention of the suffering of believers in Israel, I took a bit of my message time to report briefly on some such instances.
Many in the congregation were greatly surprised by the account. I think Israel has been overlooked in much of the literature that informs Christians about the need to pray for brothers and sisters around the world. Certainly there is no state sponsored persecution of the church there. And I don’t mean to imply that most Christians in Israel endure the kind of continual violence as the most severely persecuted Christians who are routinely imprisoned and even tortured for their faith in other parts of the world. The Jewish people have endured enough persecution so that many in Israel are willing to stand up for the rights of Jesus-believing Jews as well as Arabs. However, we need to be aware that there are believers in Israel who are enduring much for their faith and need our prayers.
Did you know that one of the major champions of today’s movement to advocate for persecuted Christians was Jewish? Michael Horowitz— who is not a believer in Jesus— began promoting this issue back in 1995. Many others have taken up his concern, and one of the results is the aforementioned annual day of prayer for the persecuted church. In that same spirit, as I draw attention to the persecuted church in Israel, I’ll begin with the plight of the Arab believers there.
Some may point out that evangelical Christians make up a relatively small percentage of Arabs who identify as Christians in Israel; the majority are Orthodox or Coptic. But that should not lessen our concern that, in the very cradle of Christianity, the Arab church is rapidly shrinking out of existence. They are being squeezed and pummeled by an increasingly extreme and strident form of Islam, a process that currently seems to be unchecked by an Israeli government that is struggling to cope with numerous political matters.
Just three months ago I took a group of American Christians from my home church on a walking tour through the city of Nazareth, where Jesus spent many years. For ages the city was home to a largely Arab Christian community. The population has radically changed to a predominantly Muslim community. This is not simply a fact of an incidentally shifting population. Life is increasingly difficult for Arab Christians—whether evangelical or not—and many are leaving the area. In the plaza directly in front of the Church of the Annunciation hangs a banner in Arabic, Hebrew and English proclaiming from the Koran, “GOD is One, the Eternal God. He begot none, nor was He begotten. None is equal to Him” (Qur’an 112:1-4).
It is deeply insulting to believers in Jesus to have so strident a denial of the deity and incarnation of the Lord Jesus imposed upon a site that many Christians hold sacred. The sign clearly contradicts the New Testament accounts of the nature of the One whose birth the site commemorates.
Can you imagine what would happen if Christians took a similar liberty with a well-known mosque, erecting a banner to deny a core Muslim belief concerning Mohammed? The government of Israel would hardly remain indifferent, any more than it would stand for an anti-Jewish statement from Islamic verse to be displayed at the Wailing Wall. Yet the ease with which Muslims superimposed their denial of a basic Christian tenet over a well-known church is but one example of an anti-Christian trend. Just a few miles away in Cana, where Jesus performed His first two miracles, Arab Christians have to be very careful what they say and with whom they associate, out of fear of reprisal from Muslim neighbors.
There has also been a steady exodus of Arab Christians from Bethlehem. And things are even worse for Arab Christians living in the territories, where a little more than a year ago the manager of the only Christian bookstore in Gaza was kidnapped and brutally murdered by Islamic fundamentalists.
And what about the Jewish church, or as most believers in Israel would prefer to be called, the Messianic community? On the one hand, we can be thankful that the Messianic community in Israel is actually growing. More people are open to the gospel than ever before, as we’ve reported from our first year of Behold Your God campaigns in the land. Nevertheless, it seems that those who oppose the gospel are also more active than ever. A little over a year ago a gift basket was delivered to the home of a Messianic pastor in the town of Ariel. The pastor’s fifteen-year-old son was home alone to receive what turned out to be a booby trap. When he opened the basket it blew up, lacerating his young body with shrapnel and nearly killing him.
To date, no one has been arrested for this attack, though there is strong suspicion that the police are aware of the perpetrator’s identity. There is no doubt the bombing was religiously motivated. Normally in Israel, government officials are quick to speak out when there is any kind of terrorist attack, and they offer comfort to the victim’s family. The Ortiz family received no such comfort.
In Arad, an ultra-Orthodox group torched a Messianic community center. No action was taken against them and they continue to harass and bully believers, protesting outside their congregation and homes. In Beersheva, a local Messianic service was violently interrupted by religious Jews in an attempt to prevent a baptism. The congregation faces ongoing threats and legal challenges. Even the U.S. State Department, in its annual report on religious freedom, raised concerns about the persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel.
I must admit that I felt hesitant about pointing out the persecution that Jewish and Arab believers in Jesus undergo in Israel. I don’t want any of our friends who read this newsletter to misunderstand or jump to conclusions about who and how many are to blame. The point of this article is not to demonize any non-Christians in Israel, whether Arab or Jew. The point is, relatively little has been said about persecuted believers in Israel. And if little is said, little can be done and certainly little prayer will be offered up to God on behalf of those in distress.
So what should we do?
- Keep talking about it. I am deeply grateful to the organizations who report on the persecuted church; let’s be asking them to report more about the Jewish and Arab church in Israel. Efforts to write to Congress and other government officials on behalf of believers in Israel should be organized, just as they are for persecuted believers in other parts of the world.
- Re-order our priorities. The Bible instructs us to “do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Most pro-Israel Christian groups seem to overlook the plight of both Arab and Jewish believers, focusing on causes such as Russian Jewish immigration. Let’s not be satisfied until such groups show they are also concerned and active in upholding those who are standing for the gospel in Israel.
- Rejoice and be exceedingly glad. Those are Jesus’ words to followers who are persecuted on His account (Matthew 5:11-12). Even if you are not experiencing this persecution presently, you can pray for and encourage this attitude in those who are. Jews for Jesus has many staff in Israel, and as they face persecution it is my duty to encourage them. One way I do this is to go and stand with them as they evangelize, facing the difficulties they face with gladness. I know that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” that God often uses opposition as an opportunity to glorify Himself. That is the best reason for us to rejoice.
- Identify and intercede. It would be inappropriate to rejoice if we did not fully identify with those who suffer, if we did not also wrestle and intercede on their behalf. While you might not be able to be on the front lines, you can pray for us and others in Israel, that the joy of the Lord will be our strength. As you pray, remember that God loves Arabs and Jews equally. And He loves His church in His promised land. We need to love as God loves and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6a). True and lasting peace can only come to this divided land through the Prince of Peace, and it is a privilege as well as a challenge for His people to proclaim that message. When Arabs and Jews can love one another in Jesus’ name, then the entire world will see the reconciling power of the gospel and give glory to God.