RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–It may not be a church-planting movement yet, but hundreds of Muslims across Israel and the Palestinian areas have come to Christ in the past year or so.
The decisions have resulted in small groups of believers scattered in villages and cities across this troubled region, leaping tense borders as ex-Muslims share their newfound faith with others in their extended families of parents, uncles, aunts — and sometimes, multiple wives.
“I’ve been working among these people for 30 years, and I promise you I’ve never seen anything like this,” marvels one Southern Baptist worker.
They gather behind closed doors to study the Bible despite the fact that professing belief in the Scriptures in Muslim areas can result in violent attacks or worse.
This is not the kind of movement Southern Baptists are likely to see covered on the 6 o’clock news. But Christian workers here are praying and carefully trying to fan the fragile flames of faith that seem near igniting into a mass movement.
As with most faith-related stories from the Middle East, neither the Christian workers involved nor the new believers want names or places publicized for fear of reprisals. Their fears are well-founded.
In May of 2001, radical Muslims firebombed the homes of four believers in the West Bank. A teenage girl received third-degree burns over much of her body and is undergoing months of painful skin-graft surgery while believers and workers from the West raise thousands of dollars to cover her medical bills.
But the result has been more Muslims from her village receiving Christ.
One ex-Muslim leader who has taught the Bible was ambushed while trying to visit some family members. Radical Muslims pitched a gasoline bomb at him, which exploded at his feet, burning his face and shoulder severely.
Radical Muslims have burned the cars of other leaders, run down their children, destroyed their crops, dumped raw sewage on one, and committed other acts of violence.
But these modern evangelists seem no more deterred by threats or suffering than did Christ’s disciples in the first century here.
“Despite these problems, the Lord said, ‘Keep going,'” says Phillip,* a new believer. “We may go to bed without supper for a week or a month, but [God] gave his own Son.
“In this Beloved Book,” he continues, picking up an Arabic Bible, “it says the cross costs.”
Muslims also have used money in an attempt to stop the gospel. One man stopped attending Bible studies after local Muslims paid off all his debts in exchange for his dropping out. He later returned to believers and begged for forgiveness.
Distribution of the Bible and gospel tracts by Christian workers across this region for decades is undoubtedly a factor in the new movement.
Phillip knew nothing of the gospel until he received a Bible and began reading a few pages from it each day.
“After a month I got really attached to the Psalms,” Phillip recalls. “Then I read the Bible from cover to cover.
“As I got deeper in the faith, I realized the Lord was calling me to share the gospel,” he adds.
He kept reading the Bible for five years, but feared telling anyone because of the violence or death that can await many Muslims who convert to Christianity.
Finally a friend introduced him to a Southern Baptist worker who since has discipled and trained him for more than two years.
Despite his fear, Phillip began sharing his faith. “Of course I’m still afraid even today,” he says, “but the Holy Spirit gives me courage. The Lord is always with us and opens the way for us.”
One worker says Muslim responsiveness to the gospel increased noticeably after the Gulf War ended in 1991 and Christians worldwide began praying for the 10/40 Window, which includes most of the Muslim world.
Another factor has been the years of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, in which hundreds have died in the recent months of fighting. The almost daily violence has left many seeking new answers.
Among others who have responded to the gospel, most noticeable are the Messianic Jews — Israelis of Jewish background who now believe Jesus is the Messiah.
Christian workers in Israel plead for Southern Baptists and other Christians to pray for believers in the Middle East, whatever their background. True peace, they say, will come to the region only when people follow the Prince of Peace.
* Name changed for security reasons. Reprinted from The Commission magazine, published by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. IMB personnel currently are working with more than 300 predominantly Muslim people groups in 75 countries. In the 2001 Annual Statistical Report IMB personnel and their overseas Baptist partners reported the planting of 121 new churches and 3,405 baptisms among predominantly Muslim groups. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: FAITH AFOOT.