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Lebanese Christian community unites in aftermath of shooting

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Evangelical Christians in southern Lebanon are uniting in prayer and fellowship following the Nov. 21 murder of a Baptist nurse who worked at a missionary clinic in Sidon, according to an International Mission Board worker based in the country.

Bonnie Penner Witherall, 31, was shot three times in the head at close range with a 7-millimeter pistol, the police said, and collapsed in a pool of blood inside the door of the two-story building that housed both the Unity Center clinic and an evangelical church. Police said they believe she was murdered because of her evangelical efforts to Muslim women.

Witherall and her British-born husband, Gary, were partner missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Since Witherall’s death, workers in southern Lebanon have seen what one IMB representative called “incredible developments.”

“The other week, I sat as two leaders in the evangelical community asked one another for forgiveness for not working together and then they pledged to work together,” said the representative who asked not to be identified due to security precautions. “During the past couple of days, we have been overwhelmed as local believers and missionaries have expressed interest in our vision and plans.”

Witherall’s death also led to the first community-wide prayer meeting in Sidon. “There is not only a sense of the need to work together, but people are doing it,” the representative said. “This was only a burden on many people’s hearts a few weeks ago. Bonnie’s death was the sounding of the horn to rally together.

“We are seeing more interest in the work here than we have in a long time,” the representative told Baptist Press. “Daily, we are receiving e-mail from people all over the world asking how they can pray and be a part of what God is doing here. We stand ready with an answer.”

The IMB representative said he met Witherall and her husband about eight months ago, along with some other clinic workers. He joined Gary Witherall during an August street witnessing campaign.

“Both Bonnie and Gary had a real passion for people, especially that others would experience their Savior,” he said. “I count them to be heroes as they had a very impacting ministry in a very difficult part of Lebanon.”

While Christians are allowed to live and worship freely in Lebanon, the representative said Muslim militants strongly objected to their evangelism efforts. “They tried to resort to violence to stop the work,” he said. “The only problem is that violence will not stop the work of God.”

The representative compared Lebanese Christians to the Christians written about in the New Testament Book of Acts. “The believers are coming together and praying for boldness and courage,” he said. “But it does not stop with prayer; many are also taking more public stances for the gospel.”

Despite the threat of persecution and death, the representative said he is not fearful for his life. “It’s a question I’ve had to work through. By no means am I desirous to make my wife a widow,” he said. “However, I am willing to lay my life down for the sake of the gospel. From a day-to-day perspective, I am not fearful at all. We, the [expatriate] community, have found an outpouring of love during the past couple of weeks. This love is not just coming from the local believers; it is also coming from Muslims in the community. I feel safer here than I do in America.”

The IMB representative said he believes Witherall’s death will impact the ministry in Lebanon, but time will tell whether believers will stand up for the sake of the gospel or hide from the Muslim extremists.

“Unfortunately, as we look at church history, we have a history of believers running and hiding from any possible attacks,” he said. “I pray and hope that this will not be the response. My heart tells me that God is working mightily in Lebanon and Bonnie’s murder is a testimony of it.

“I think that the cost of her life will be a more bold and courageous witness in Lebanon,” he said. “I would not be surprised if within the next couple of years, we find churches being planted in every part of Lebanon.”

The representative said he is praying that God would send laborers to Lebanon to take advantage of the openness to the gospel and “the openness that we have to share in Lebanon.”

As for critics in the media and some religions denominations who believe that Christians should not proselytize Muslims, the representative argued that believers are required to share the gospel to everyone.

“The greatest apostle in the New Testament was the leading terrorist before his conversion,” he said, referring to Paul. “We need to reach out to all people with the good news of Jesus Christ. People are searching for and longing to know God. We must tell them.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes