Baptists in Levantium

 Interesting history.  Thank you very much.  I’m curious, because it wasn’t mentioned in the article and perhaps wasn’t germane, but how much Baptist work in Israel/Palestine is with Jewish (secular and confessing) persons and how much is with non-Jewish (i.e., Arab Christians and Muslims and non-Arab visiting pilgrims/tourists) persons?  What are the ratios?  Maybe I’ve been misinformed, but I thought evangelical outreach to Jews was verboten in Israel.

Actually, I was a bit surprised that the Jerusalem Post even published the story.  My impression after comparing it to Haaretz for the last few years is that the JP is more or less the Faux News of Israeli newspapers.  There were, however, some curious insertions that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the narrative, such as the factoid that there were 6,000 Jewish casualties in the 1948 war (6,373 to be exact), or 1% of Israel’s Jewish Population.

No mention of Arab casualties.  Guess even back then, we Westerners couldn’t be bothered to do body counts if the bodies happened to be Arab.  I checked a few sources and, in the interest of offering “the other side of the story” wanted to remind everyone that in that same war, estimates of Arab casualties range from 5,000 to 15,000 (2,000 regular army from Arab countries and perhaps as many as 13,000 Palestinian irregulars).

Let’s do a little math:  Approximately 711,000 Palestinian Arabs fled because of the war (those are UN figures, Israel’s estimate is 420,000 and the Palestinian estimate is 900,000).

 In 1927, the population of Palestine was approximately:

589,200 Muslims
 83,800 Jews
 71,500 Christians
  7,600 Others

By 1947, the population estimates were:

1,135,269 Muslims
  650,000 Jews
  153,621 Christians
   16,370 Others

So, taking the lowest estimates of 3,000 Palestinians killed and another 420,000 exiled, 32% of the 1,305,000 non-Jews in Palestine were forever (if the Israelis have their way) banished by the 1948 war.  Sorta makes the 1% figure seem less significant.  Using the higher casualty estimates (also about 1%) and the UN refugee estimates, the percentage jumps to 55%!  And don’t forget, Israel’s territory increased by nearly 50%, from 5,400 square miles to 8,000.  In military terms, seems like that 1% figure was a pretty good trade-off, especially when you factor in the way it destabilized neighboring countries for the next half-century and created a climate that encouraged far more Jews than were ever lost in the war to immigrate from Arab countries.

This kind of one-sided reporting reminds me of the recent flap over Carter’s book in which he labeled Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestine as apartheid.  Every newspaper in the USA and Israel was giddy over the fact that 12 members of the Carter Center’s advisory board had resigned in protest.  You had to search high and low to find out that all 12 were Jewish and that more than 280 members of the same board had NOT resigned!

Still, David Smith’s history of Baptists in the area was very interesting.  Others have been in the region even longer.  In 2002, Ussama Makdisi wrote in the Boston Globe that “the first American missionaries to the Arab world were associated with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.  They departed Boston in 1819 and arrived in the Levant in 1820.  Failing to establish themselves in Jerusalem, they settled on Beirut as the center of a missionary enterprise to Syria in 1823.”

I received an e-mail in 2004 from Tony [deleted].  He is descended from a long line of Presbyterian missionaries.  His mother’s grandfather (a Jessup, from Pennsylvania) went to Lebanon during Abraham Lincoln’s administration.  One of the Jessup brothers was asked by Lincoln to serve as US consul, but he declined saying he wanted to be free to preach God’s message rather than be required to deliver the government’s official message.  Tony’s father, also a missionary, retired in 1961 and was replaced by Ben Weir (who many of us know and who was a hostage during the civil war).

Likewise, the great grandfather, grandfather, and mother of retired CIA officer Ray Close (one of those notorious “Arabists” by his own admission) were Presbyterian missionaries in Sidon, Lebanon, starting in 1853.  Four years ago, Mr. Close sent my father the text of a speech he gave in early 2003, on the eve of our conquest of Iraq.  He concluded with a 1953 quote from Dwight Eisenhower:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.  The world in arms is not spending money alone.  It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. … This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense.  Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Seems like we’ve been hanging from that cross ever since.  By way of contrast, here’s what our “war president” has to say about a variety of issues:

 I can’t help but wonder what the state of Christian evangelism might have been throughout the Middle East if we had had more leaders like Eisenhower and Carter…

“The End of the Affair” by Ussama Makdisi, Boston Globe, October 27, 2002 (Edition: THIRD, Section: Ideas, Page: D1)

Sent: Mar 9, 2007 9:36 AM
Subject: “Baptists in the Holy Land” by David Smith.


As a Baptist journalist in Israel for the past 25 years, I’ve often been shocked at how little Israelis know about my denomination.

With more than 90 million Baptists in the world, about half of whom are in the United States, and 17 million in my denomination – the Southern Baptist Convention – it’s a shock that Israelis, so interested in all things American, overlook this phenomenon.

How has the role of America’s Baptist presidents, many of whom acted out of faith toward the Jewish people, been overlooked? Harry S Truman was instrumental in securing UN recognition for Israel. Jimmy Carter mediated the Camp David accords in which Egypt recognized Israel. And Bill Clinton… well.

Although some earlier survey work had been done, the single greatest catalyst for Baptist work in the Holy Land was Sukri Mussa, a resident of Safed who went to the US to study in the early 1900s. While there, he came to faith under the preaching of George Truett at First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. Supported by Baptist churches in southern Illinois, he returned to the Holy Land in 1911.

According to Fuad Sakhnini, pastor of the Nazareth Baptist Church since 1960, “He bought a horse and began preaching in the villages. It wasn’t easy because people were fanatically loyal to their communities. The first Baptists here were persecuted by the other traditional Christian communities.”

He witnessed in Turan and Eilabun, villages with large nominal Christian populations – the kind of background he was from. Mussa organized Bible studies and people met in homes for a time, but in 1926 the new believers built Nazareth Baptist Church. Mussa died in 1928, but there was already a vision to start planting churches in the Galilee, Sakhnini said.

Sakhnini, born the same year the church was built, was among a group of young men who continued starting new works “in obedience to the Great Commission.” Many of them went out on donkeys to preach.

Churches were established throughout the Galilee, in villages such as Jaffa, Kafr Kanna, Turan, Eilabun, Acre and Rama. More recently, two Baptist churches have been established in Nazareth.

During the 1930s a number of American Southern Baptists arrived in the Holy Land to bolster the local work. They included Leo Eddleman, later a college Hebrew professor, who was noted for his mastery of both Hebrew and Arabic. He attributed those skills to the curfew maintained during the British Mandate, saying there was little else to do but study from sunrise to sunset.

By the end of the 1930s, Southern Baptists had seven Americans working in Palestine, but World War II forced them to leave and the work floundered for a time.

Dwight Baker, who served in Israel in the 1950s and ’60s, wrote: “Had it not been for the stout-hearted courage of the nationals, all would have been lost. A work that was begun by Arab Baptists was just as heroically sustained by these indefatigable souls.”

In 1945 Henry and Julia Hagood arrived, and soon moved to Nazareth to open the George W. Truett Home for Children. That same year, Robert and Margaret Lindsey came to strengthen the work in Jerusalem. Lindsey had spent 1939 in Jerusalem as a student, and already had a good working knowledge of the language, according to Baker.

Working tirelessly to establish the orphanage, learn Arabic and preach on the weekends, Hagood “was no match for the serious throat infection which hospitalized him in January 1946 and caused his death three days later,” according to Baker. His wife, Julia, stayed on in Nazareth with their young son to continue the work.

Baptist work suffered another setback before and during the 1948 War of Independence. Many children orphaned as a result of that war (which killed 6,000 Jews, or fully 1 percent of the country’s Jewish population) found a home at the Nazareth orphanage, necessitating a reevaluation of that ministry.

The Baptist Village, near Petah Tikva, had originally been conceived by Lindsey as a cooperative for Jewish believers in Jesus; land was purchased in 1948 and 1950 toward that end. But failing that venture, Baptists in Israel later decided to relocate the orphanage.

If the Baptist denomination is not known in Israel, the same cannot be said of its institutions. Baptist Village is known throughout the country. Although Lindsey’s original vision was never realized, thousands of people have been blessed by its ministry.

As the orphans grew, a school was developed for them. In 1963 Baptists established a vocational school whose 100 graduates would include all ethnic groups in Israel. Believers founded a church on its grounds whose ministry continues. A camp and conference program was established in the 1950s. Annual camps are conducted in English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic.

More recently, Baptist Village has teamed with International Sports Properties to support baseball and softball. As a result, the 2005 Maccabiah baseball and softball competitions were held there.

Residents of neighboring Petah Tikva and Hod Hasharon have enjoyed Baptist Village since its beginning. Every Friday afternoon 15-20 men gather there to play soccer. Yanco Zvi of Tel Aviv, who’s been playing for more than 20 years, says: “This place has been great for us. I hope my children can enjoy it as I have.”

Nazareth Baptist School, opened in the 1930s, closed during World War II and reopened only after independence. From its modest beginnings, it is now recognized by the Ministry of Education as one of the country’s premier educational institutions. In 2006 it was ranked seventh nationally for the percentage of students scoring “excellent” results in matriculation exams.

In the youth competition called “First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics,” Israel has won 22 prizes in the past 10 years. Nine of those prizes went to students from Nazareth Baptist School. When physicist Stephen Hawking was here last year, three schools were allowed to send students to interview him; Nazareth Baptist was one of them.

According to general director Butrus Monsour, Nazareth Baptist scores in the top 1% of Israeli students in English every year.

The school’s waiting list is long. Monsour says if he had the facilities, he could double its 1,000 enrollment in two years. It is presently considering another site in Nazareth.

Although their work has grown exponentially from its 1911 roots, Baptists have suffered setbacks. Beset by wars, terrorism, religious persecution and political tension, the story of Narkis Street Baptist Church is largely indicative of Baptists in the country.

With the resurgence in Baptist work after World War I, a church of 13 congregants began meeting on Narkis Street near downtown Jerusalem in 1933. These early congregants included Jewish, Arab and expatriate devotees meeting in a chapel that had been largely built by one man – Roswell Owens – for about $1,000 in building costs.

World War II took its toll, and the succeeding revival was cut short by almost immediately by Jewish-Arab tensions. Robert Lindsey assumed the pastorate in 1949 and worked ardently to build the work, most of which revolved around Friday night and Saturday morning services in Hebrew and English. Others assumed preaching responsibilities at the church during most of the 1950s, but in 1962 Lindsey became pastor again as the group formalized itself as a church.

In 1961 Lindsey had crossed into Jordanian-controlled east Jerusalem to retrieve one of the residents of the Truett home whose relatives were preventing his return to Israel. Sneaking across the Mandelbaum Gate at night, Lindsey stepped on a land mind, causing the loss of a leg. His biography, co-written by his son-in-law, is titled One Foot in Heaven: The Story of Bob Lindsey in Jerusalem.

In October 1982, the church was levelled by arsonists. Police suspected extremist elements from Jerusalem’s haredi community. Charles Kopp, senior pastor for the previous 15 years, was the first member to arrive at the scene. He says the members felt “shock and great grief because of our worship center being destroyed. But we also felt hopeful. Bob [Robert Lindsey] took it as positively as he could, and said he had been praying that the fire of the Holy Spirit would fall from heaven, though [the arson] wasn’t what he had intended.”

Although the crime was soundly condemned by politicians and the chief rabbis, the government was reluctant to allow the church to rebuild, suggesting it move farther from the city center.

Lindsey was prepared to accept the government’s suggestion, but church members declined, saying leaving might encourage the extremists to step up their campaign. Permission to rebuild on site was secured in 1987, after apetition to the High Court.

The church at Narkis Street, from its infancy in the 1930s, overcame these obstacles. Presently four different congregations, representing about 500 believers meeting in Hebrew, Russian and English, gather there. One English-speaking congregation has a contemporary worship service, while another employs a traditional Baptist liturgy.

Similarly, the national work, from its equine-borne evangelists in the early part of the 20th century, presently consists of about 6,000 adults and children meeting in 20 churches – the Association of Baptist Churches (ABC) having formed in 1963.

Although Baptist numbers in Israel are limited, their influence has affected the believing community greatly. Dozens of congregations and thousands of Christians throughout the country are Baptist in terms of doctrine and administration, although they do not formally belong to the ABC.

Fuad Haddad, chairman of the ABC, writes: “The concern of Baptists today is to witness and be witnesses in the Land. The promotion of the Lord’s work is a priority… local churches have been challenged to double their numbers in a decade. God has blessed, and He will continue to bless.”

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.