BETHLEHEM (BP)–When fleeing Palestinian fighters forced their way into Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity April 2, Israeli soldiers found themselves laying siege to one of Christianity’s holiest sites.
The standoff symbolizes the predicament of Christian believers in the Middle East and demonstrates the need for urgent prayer, say some missions workers in the region.
Israeli followers of Christ worry about the daily threat of suicide bombings and cast anxious glances at Arabs who move freely in their midst. Palestinian Christians can’t travel to jobs that provide for their families and cringe when the Israeli army begins another round of shelling.
Turmoil in the always-volatile Middle East escalated rapidly after Palestinian suicide bombers began striking Israel daily, including a March 27 attack that killed 22 people during a Passover feast. Israel sent tanks to occupy Palestinian Authority headquarters and invaded Palestinian towns in search of terrorists.
Jewish and Palestinian believers in the region are calling Christians to fervently pray that God would intervene in the crisis, Southern Baptist workers say.
“Easter attendance at churches in the region was far beyond anything they’ve ever had,” said Mark Snowden, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. “In spite of this turmoil and incredible stress, Christian workers are finding that people are requesting ‘Jesus’ films and asking questions about Jesus more than they ever have.”
In one instance, an Arab man walked into an Israeli congregation — much to the consternation of members who didn’t recognize him, Snowden said. After a brief conversation revealed he had no ill intentions, however, the man joined the congregation for Resurrection Day worship.
“We praise God for that,” Snowden said. “Christians in Israel don’t want to alienate anyone, especially Arabs who are seeking answers from Christians.”
At the same time, Palestinian fighters are using a predominantly Christian town as a base for launching attacks on Israeli troops, he said. When Israeli soldiers retaliate, their shells destroy the homes of innocent Christians.
Three Israeli shells struck the home of a Palestinian who works for a Christian Bible college, leaving the terrified family thankful they suffered only cuts and bruises.
“Palestinian believers want other Christians to pray that God will provide basic necessities like food and shelter that they can’t provide for themselves right now,” Snowden said. “Believers in Israel want us to pray that they would not succumb to a spirit of fear but instead would be sensitive to the opportunities God gives them to share Christ.
“And everyone wants us to pray for peace.”
The International Mission Board (www.imb.org) is a Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program (www.cpmissions.net) and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering (www.imb.org/ime/LMCO).