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Baptists in Nazareth & Jerusalem carry on in Jewish-Arab milieu

NAZARETH, Israel (BP)–While the nation of Israel, the Promised Land of the Bible, is steeped in Jewish, Orthodox, Arab and Muslim traditions, the nation’s small Baptist community remains active.

In Nazareth, although Baptists represent the smallest Christian group in the Arab city where Jesus grew up, the Baptist church is the mother church of Baptist work in the Galilee, said pastor Fuad Sakhnini.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, Narkis Street Baptist Church has been a stronghold of the Christian faith since before World War II.

The 400 Baptists in Nazareth may seem miniscule in a city of 70,000 people where cassocked monks rub shoulders with pilgrims from the world over, and the distinctive roof of the Basilica of the Annunciation dominates above the red-tiled roofs and minarets, but Sakhnini, who was saved after going to church to make fun of born-again Christians, maintains there is a unique opportunity to reach people with the message of Jesus.

Home to 30 churches, convents and monasteries, Nazareth is a study in religious coexistence, since some 60 percent of the city’s populace is Muslim. Thus both the minarets of mosques and church spires play along the Nazareth skyline against the pastoral, rolling hills.

The Baptist church keeps a supply of Bibles in an array of languages, Sakhnini said, noting, “The best way to reach people is to give them the Word of God. Then the Holy Spirit is responsible to reveal Christ.”

The Evangelical Baptist Church of Nazareth has planted at least eight works in the Galilee area. “We have Hebrew Christian brothers and the work is growing with Arab Christians,” said Sakhnini, who grew up in the Greek Orthodox faith.

Many Christians are leaving Israel because they feel they have no future there, the pastor lamented.

“In 1949, there were 340,000 Christians or 3.3 percent of the population,” Sakhnini said. “In 2000, there are 130,000 Christians or 2 percent of the population.”

Of his conversion years ago, Sakhnini said as he was convicted of his sins, he went to a Greek Orthodox priest who gave him pictures and icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary and other saints.

“He asked me to kneel before them and pray, and said to lay them on a table by my bed, pray to them each night, and they would help me,” Sakhnini said. “The more I prayed to them, the more miserable I was because they were man-made gods.”

The Baptist Convention of Israel owns the school which is housed in the Nazareth church. The school was founded in 1949 when there were not enough schools, especially in Arab sectors.

More than 1,000 students attend the kindergarten through 12th grade school, including about 300 Muslims.

“The Muslims send their children to the Baptist school because of its academic and moral standards,” Sakhnini explained. “It has the highest rating of all Arabic schools, and 80 percent of the students go on to higher education.”

Sakhnini said the school was established to give “education plus Christ.”

“The school was not started to be a church or compete with the church,” Sakhnini said, “but to be a means of evangelizing.”

In Jerusalem, the flagship Narkis Street Baptist Church was built in 1933, then closed from 1941-45 because of the war, and reopened for a period of six months by Robert Haygood. After Haygood’s death, the late Robert Lindsey assumed the responsibility.

Lindsey, a native of Norman, Okla., was appointed as a missionary by the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) in 1944. He and his wife, Margaret, and their children resided in the Rehaviah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Lindsey gained lasting notoriety in Israel after losing his left leg below the knee when he stepped on a land mine in 1961 as he was crossing the border without authorization to retrieve an orphan detained in Jordan.

Historians list Lindsey as “unquestionably the most prominent among BCI workers.” For a period, he served as chairman of the United Christian Council in Israel. He was a researcher and Bible translator and had many contacts with Jewish people in the academic world. He retired in 1986 and died in Tulsa in 1995.

Baptist work in the 3,000-year-old city founded by King David began in 1911 under the name Baptist Convention in Palestine. The name has since been changed to Baptist Convention in Israel (BCI). It is supported by the Southern Baptist Convention and has included work among both Arabs and Jews.

Narkis Street Baptist Church has on several occasions been the target of demonstrations and acts of vandalism. In 1974 a group of persons set fire to the offices of the Baptist House on the grounds. In 1977 the windows of the building were smashed by a hand grenade placed in a plastic pail.

In 1982 the church was completely destroyed by fire, but city approval to rebuild was not granted until 1988. In 1985, Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem, had tried to dissuade Lindsey from rebuilding and proposed two alternate sites. However, the mayor launched a public fund for the building effort by opening special accounts in several Jerusalem banks.

The growing congregation met under a tent until 1991 when members moved into a $1.7 million, 400-seat facility.

The church facility presently encompasses four congregations, including the Jerusalem Baptist Church, and Messianic congregations also have made extensive use of the facilities for their meetings.

John Anthony, a Southern Baptist worker in Israel since 1973, recently resigned as pastor of the Jerusalem congregation to move to Paris where he will be pastor of a congregation there. Jerry Young, from Houston, is the new pastor.

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  • Dana Williamson