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Southern Baptist workers in Israel keep heads down and pray for all involved

JERUSALEM (BP)–As one of the most violent uprisings in years continues between Israel and Palestinians, Southern Baptist personnel in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank remain safe but poised for possible evacuation if conditions worsen.

They appealed to Southern Baptists to avoid taking sides and to pray for all involved in the conflict.

More than 80 people have died as the conflict stretched into its second week. Pitched gun battles, rock throwing and other fighting continued in Hebron, Ramallah and Netzarim but violence also broke out in Nazareth, the home town of Jesus.

Hopes for a peace accord seemed faint as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak threatened further military response if the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, did not end the conflict. But raw emotion and hatred are always plentiful in this troubled land and neither side seems prepared to back down.

More than two dozen Southern Baptist workers are currently assigned to Israel and about a dozen to Gaza and the West Bank, though some of these are in the United States for periodic assignments there.

One Southern Baptist family hears machinegun fire and the noise of demonstrations about a mile from their home in Ramallah. “We feel safe. We’ve been here four and a half years and the people who live around us care about us,” she said.

“But it’s scary to hear the machinegun fire at night, not because you think you’re going to be hurt, but you think, who is being hurt? What will be the result tomorrow?” she said. Shops have been open only limited hours and they have mostly stayed indoors, she said.

Southern Baptist workers in Gaza City live and work near demonstrations which have united thousands of Palestinians — including political parties usually divided — in vivid displays of hatred towards Israel. But the main conflict has been at Netzarim Junction south of Gaza City, where Israeli troops blew up two buildings thought to protect Palestinian snipers firing at Israeli positions.

Worrisome to many observers is that Arabs living within Israel have joined in the uprising, something that did not happen in earlier periods of violence. Further, Israelis have tended to have military forces respond to violence, but many civilian citizens have joined in the present conflict.

In Nazareth, a predominantly Arab area, mobs stormed a mall and destroyed a Jewish-owned pharmacy, bank and fast food restaurant while a Southern Baptist worker and other Christians met in an evangelical church to pray for peace. She described her shock later at seeing heavily armed Israeli troops unloading from a bus on her street and then passing through her neighborhood.

Another kind of shock came when a neighbor’s child brought in hands full of the rubber-coasted steel balls fired by Israeli troops at protesters, she said.

“We Southern Baptists need to be careful not to make statements that condemn one side or the other. Both sides are at fault,” cautioned one worker who lives in Israel. “We don’t need to lay blame but to be in a position of praying for peace and their salvation,” he urged.

Ironically, the conflict has come at a time when Jewish followers of Christ continue to increase numerically and workers have seen an unprecedented response to the gospel among Arabs in the past couple of years. One of the few times Jews and Arabs sit together in peace is at Christian functions, one worker said.

“The reality is that peace can only come through Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace,” said one Southern Baptist worker on the West Bank.

“It’s ironic,” said another Southern Baptist worker,” that Israel just celebrated Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — and we serve a risen Lord who already atoned for sin.”

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