"We are a forgotten faithful, but not by the Lord."
An Arab Christian community has existed in this land since the Day of Pentecost (see Acts 2). Palestine and much of the Middle East were predominantly Christian during the Byzantine era. In spite of 2,000 years of wars and unrest, we see the faithfulness of the Lord in keeping for himself a living witness here.
By some estimates, the number of Arab Christians in the entire Middle East is 16 million, less than 7 percent of the total Arabic population. We are a forgotten faithful, but not by the Lord. An important head of state, also a Muslim, once put it this way: "It is important to keep the Arab Christians in the Middle East; they are the glue that holds the community together."
In the Holy Land, the situation is more precarious, with the percentage of Palestinian Christians today being less than 2 percent. This is a tragic drop from 17 percent at the turn of the century.
As a Christian who was born in the Holy Land and who can trace my ancestors back several hundred years, I don't feel that this land is only mine. People of all nationalities have deep spiritual, historical, and emotional ties to this land—the cradle of Christianity and Judaism. Pilgrims come from all parts of the world to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to see the empty tomb, and to revitalize their faith in their Lord and Savior.
A colorful spectrum of churches comprises the Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land. Members of the historical churches—namely, the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Latin Catholic—take pride in tracing their heritage back to the earliest church. Their monasteries, cathedrals, and churches stand as a physical timeline of their faithfulness to the Christian witness. In addition, the Protestant and evangelical churches are making their impact in this land. Most of these churches were started in the eighteenth century by Western missionaries. Baptists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, Missionary Alliance, and other evangelicals work together as if they are one congregation. Their small numbers and the great challenges facing them draw them to each other as they serve their one Lord.
In keeping with the example set before them by the first church, Palestinian Christians have always been on the forefront in providing charitable relief to the needy. In 1948, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homeland and became refugees. Today, 20 refugee camps are home to over a million people. All Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, are restricted to tiny areas of land within the West Bank. This continues to have devastating effects upon the Palestinian economy. Palestinian Christians, in cooperation with the church worldwide, are working to alleviate this suffering.
The church's influence is also felt through the spiritual encouragement it brings to the surrounding communities. Presently, under the Palestinian National Authority, the church has many opportunities to present the good news to the lost. Palestinian Christians freely distribute Christian literature, hold Bible studies, do correspondence courses, and advertise in the local papers. On several occasions, the Jesus film has been broadcast in prime time on Palestinian public television. Recently, in Bethlehem, an evangelical church was allowed to begin broadcasting Christian programs from its own local radio station. Soon the same church will have its own Christian television station. We praise God for these and many other opportunities. We see this as a clear signal that under the Palestinian Authority freedom of religious expression is tolerated—which is quite the opposite of rumors that the Palestinian Authority is persecuting Christians.
Nonetheless, the church in the Holy Land has not escaped the suffering brought about from nearly a century of political and economic unrest. The growth and outreach of the church is severely hampered by the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis. On top of this, the Jewish and Muslim majorities, by their sheer numbers, are gradually squeezing out any Christian presence here, making the church very vulnerable and susceptible to changing political winds.
Another believing community in the Holy Land is the Messianic Jews. God is doing a great work among them, too, and the number of Messianic assemblies is growing. Some estimates report the number of Messianic Jews to be approximately 3,000. Like the Palestinians, they have their own congregations and institutions. Palestinian Christians praise the Lord for these brothers and sisters in Christ. It is not easy for them to express their faith openly. Israeli monitoring organizations have been set up to track their mission activities, and attempts are being made in the Israeli Knesset to pass legislation making it illegal for them to possess Christian literature or to evangelize.
Unless the world understands the precariousness of this remnant of faithful believers—Palestinian and Jewish—who are determined to keep the gospel light shining, pilgrims to this land of promise may visit our shrines and churches yet never meet a local Christian. Christians here believe that despite the darkness of the hour there is still hope for the Middle East, for Palestine/Israel. Why? Because God's people, those redeemed by the blood of Jesus, are still here.
The church of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land needs the prayers and support of its brothers and sisters in the West. Our churches have taken the Great Commission to heart. They have planted churches in different parts of the land. Some have their own institutions and schools. Without their influence, Christianity in the Holy Land would be nearly extinct.
It is unfortunate that some Christians from the West believe God gave the land solely to the Jewish people. The resident Arab population, Christians and Muslims, are dismissed as trespassers or a stumbling block to the fulfillment of prophecies.
Very soon the church in Bethlehem and the rest of Palestine will celebrate a new millennium. The challenge facing the church for the year 2000 and beyond is how to be a catalyst of Christ's love, peace, hope, and renewal. As the church moves forward in proclaiming the true faith by word and deed, may the eyes of the world be drawn to the Middle East—not, we pray, to view clashes between warring parties, but to behold afresh the miracle of God incarnate in the lives of dedicated disciples. Then, from Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Christ, the Savior of the world, may once again be lifted up and glorified.
Bishara Awad, 59, is founder (in 1979) and president of Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank. In 1948 he and his Palestinian family became refugees. That same year he lost his father to a stray bullet during the fighting surrounding Israel's statehood. Since 1972, Awad had been a leader among the evangelical churches in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. He currently attends the East Jerusalem International Baptist Church. Bethlehem Bible College is located on Hebron Road and welcomes visitors. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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