Land of promise...land of strife
In October, CWI will be hosting a tour featuring Shmuel Aweida, the pastor of Beit Eliahu Messianic congregation in Haifa, Israel. He holds the unique position of being an Arab pastor to a mainly Jewish congregation and represents perhaps the first of a new generation of Arab Christians in Israel who have grown up in a climate of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles.
Despite ongoing hostilities, Shmuel is resolute regarding his convictions over the place Israel has in God’s plans, has a deep understanding of both Old and New Testaments and is propelled forward by his vision of what God is doing in his homeland.
Shmuel recognises that Israel has moved from its biblical roots and has embraced secularism and New Age philosophy. Nevertheless, he believes he is called to stand up for the God of Israel, in Israel, in order to bring the Jewish people back to their Messiah.
When he shares the gospel with Jewish people, they often respond that Jesus is not for Jews. However, some Jews think Shmuel is Jewish and accuse him of betraying his people by believing in Jesus. When Shmuel explains who he is, they are often astonished to encounter an Arab who loves the Jewish people and are more willing to listen to what he has to say.
Shmuel’s testimony, which follows, is taken from A Future for Israel? Julia Fisher’s 2006 book in which Arab Christians reflect on their journey of faith and share their understanding of what the Bible says about Israel.
I am an Israeli Arab. I was born and grew up in Haifa. My parents were born in Israel, in a village close to Nablus. They were both believers. I have two younger brothers and we all attended Hebrew-speaking Jewish schools. Although Arabic is our mother tongue, Hebrew is our main language and the language we use to speak to each other! People ask me if I have a problem with my identity! Well you can’t live in Israel and not be aware of the conflict between Arab and Jew. But I grew up in a believing home and my identity as a believer has always been the strongest part of who I am.
Believing the Scriptures and what God says about Israel before what people say about Israel has been the greatest influence on my life. Whilst growing up, 95% of my friends were Jewish. Hebrew was my language. Therefore, compared to many, my upbringing means that I’m far from being a ‘typical’ Arab.
Today I am the pastor of the congregation in Haifa in which I grew up, Beit
Eliahu, which means ‘Elijah’s House’. It’s a Messianic congregation that’s
predominantly Jewish and reaches out to the Jewish people. I am told that I must be a unique person in Israel being an Arab pastoring a Jewish congregation; that may be true – I certainly don’t know any other Arab pastors who are leading Messianic congregations.
Although the Messianic movement has grown significantly in recent years, there are still many people who have not met a believer face to face and talked to them about their faith in Yeshua. And so the questions start to flow, they become more and more interested and I usually end up sharing the gospel with them in a very natural way. The interesting thing is when they find out I’m an Arab – and I have to tell them I’m an Arab because I look Jewish and I sound Jewish – they usually soften and shrug their shoulders and look puzzled and say it’s weird enough that such a thing as a Messianic congregation exists, but being an Arab who pastors it is, well, interesting to them!
There have been times when I wished I was Jewish; times when I’ve shared the gospel with a Jewish person and they’ve turned round to me and said, ‘This Yeshua is for you Arabs. He’s not for us. Why are you telling me this?’ Other times I’m mistaken for a Jewish person and the response has been hostile; they’ve accused me of being a traitor and betraying the Jewish people by believing that Yeshua is the Messiah. Then I tell them I’m not Jewish, I’m an Arab and they stop to listen some more, to an Arab who loves Israel, how can this be, they say to me. Then we go through God’s plan of salvation which sometimes, coming from an Arab, makes them listen!
My father was 55 when I was born, and although he’s died now, I remember him as being old and wise. He always told me that the Jews were God’s people. Even before Israel became a state in 1948 there were immigrants coming to Israel both legally and illegally. During that time my father worked at the Haifa Municipality and he would help these Jewish immigrants to find jobs! He spoke Yiddish fluently. Our closest friends in the neighbourhood where we lived were Holocaust survivors from Poland. I realise that my experience is different to that of many other Arab families, but again, it has helped me to realise there is a better way than the hostility and division that we are confronted with so often today.
I know there are many Arab pastors who would not agree with me; I do not know them all personally. But I know some others who agree with my position. As for me, I will continue to teach the congregation that we are here for one reason – to glorify God and to make His name known in Haifa.
I would like to ask the Christians in the West to understand what God is doing here today. Paul understood and taught that God has a plan for Israel (Romans 9-11). However, knowing what God is going to do eventually is one thing; in the meantime, what did Paul do? He went from place to place, starting at the synagogues, preaching the gospel. I know of no greater need in Israel today.
To pray for the peace of Jerusalem is to pray for the true peace that can only be found through the Prince of peace. The One New Man in the Messiah is a reality!