By: Etan R.
The Start of a New Chapter
It wasn’t long ago that I began to be awakened to what God is doing among Muslim background believers with reference to Israel. A year and a half ago, I received a phone call from a local acquaintance asking me to travel with a couple other believers from Israel to Turkey. A few Israeli believers both Jewish and Arab were already meeting with some Turkish believers near the ancient city of Smyrna. The two believers traveling with me and I were to meet the others along the northern border of Syria in southern Turkey (ISIS territory). There, a growing home congregation was in need of a bigger space in which to meet and so was restoring a church that had been shut down since WWII.
When I arrived in Turkey, I realized that we were meeting primarily with Kurds from a Muslim background who had only recently come to faith. We met many who had very Muslim names like Ahmed, Muhammad, and Mahmoud. The pastor with whom we were working turned out to be an amazing man of God. We joined him, not only in cleaning up the old church but also in praying for some refugees who had come to the Lᴏʀᴅ, all within the past 6 months or less.
The day after cleaning up the old abandoned church, we drove to a city closer to the border of Syria. Along the way, the pastor played on the radio some worship songs that a friend of his had written in Kurdish. To my surprise, the worship songs he played used Middle Eastern instruments and were very well done in the Kurdish style. I had expected translations of English worship songs but these songs were original. From these songs, we learned some of the most common words believers use in Kurdish such as those meaning Holy Spirit, Lᴏʀᴅ, and Yeshua among others.
Whenever I think back to the drive to the border town with this Kurdish pastor, I can’t help but laugh at the difficulty of fully grasping what we were in for. He was still learning English and I had only learned introductory Turkish and Kurdish phrases. We were running on little sleep but the pastor was enthusiastic. When one of those with us asked him what exactly we would do, he excitedly answered with one word, ‘church.’
The Turkish countryside was breathtaking and so peaceful, it was tempting to sleep during moments of silence. While sleepily gazing at the splendour of the nearby Anatolian mountains, I pondered why this pastor was so energized after a short night of sleep. He was so eager to drive so far to preach at a church only to leave the next day. The rest of us kept our minds off sleep by praying together in the car and getting to know one another better.
The church service was actually a gathering in a small upper room of what had once probably been just another home. Nearly twenty people crowded into the room to hear this pastor speak. There were no chairs, just mattresses. We barely fit, most of us sitting shoulder to shoulder along the walls.
For 6 hours we sat and listened to this pastor teach these new believers about what the scriptures had to say about baptism. We took an occasional break to drink tea and to sing one of the Kurdish worship songs we’d heard during our drive there. For many, the songs were new. There were no printouts, the pastor led and repeated each song so that the others present could learn them by singing them. After every scripture read, the pastor spoke with a sort of gentle authority to those present, offering what we can only assume was an explanation of the passage he’d just read.
Those of us coming from Israel could not understand most of what was said as it was in Kurdish, but we could understand the heart and could read the scriptures as they read them. I was surprised to find so many references to baptism outside of the New Testament: some in Leviticus, some in Kings, some in Ezekiel and a few even in the Psalms. As we looked around, we saw the faces of tender-hearted new believers, absorbing every word and responding in sincerity and humility.
Being with people from a nation that has often been hostile to Israel was uncomfortable to say the least. Most of the Kurds knew Arabic, so when we talked with them, they either spoke in Arabic or else the pastor or his assistant translated into English from Kurdish. After praying for these believers to close out our meeting, we had the opportunity to speak with them during the remainder of the evening. Not only had coming to faith softened their hearts toward Israel, but they also now loved Israel! This was the first time I encountered Muslim background believers who had such a radical change of heart concerning the Promised Land. In fact, many of them loved Israel to such an extent that they were praying God might eventually allow them to visit or to find refuge within her borders.
Since then, we have continued to visit and to stay in touch with the people we met during our time there. The last time I went, we had the privilege of building a strong bond with more believers, some who later dared to return home to Syria in order to share their faith there. There have been some horrific attacks since their return, one attack killing children with whom we’d played during our time with them. This was hard for us to cope with, but far harder for them to experience in person. In spite of the challenges they face, the community of believers who’ve returned to Syria has continued to be strengthened and encouraged as God continues to move in their midst in this time of tribulation in Syria.
The Home Front
This last Passover, the body of Messiah here in Israel had the privilege of getting to meet with some believers from Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq who received special permission from the Israeli government to come for the holidays. I listened in amazement as many Muslim background believers spoke of how, in spite of the opposition against Israel in their nations, the community of believers there have grown to love Israel and the Jewish people. Rather than hating Israel as is expected by most in their nation, they are standing boldly in support of what God is doing in this land. Some Egyptians even asked me to help them to learn Hebrew and have since been faithful to grow in an understanding of the Hebrew language. A couple of the believers from Iraq actually grew up as believers and referred to themselves as Chaldean Christians—they too expressed love for this nation and for the people of Israel.
God has done miracles in the lives of believers in the Middle East, many who have come from a background in Islam and are in danger for their lives because of their faith in Yeshua. Even here in Israel, I’ve been blessed to meet believers who grew up as Muslims in very Muslim towns where there is great opposition to the re-established state of Israel. Some Muslim background believers, having come across a copy of the Bible, came to faith upon simply reading the scriptures and so grew a heart for the people and the nation of Israel.
Recently, a friend of mine opened up to me about how when he came to a revelation of Yeshua by reading the scriptures, he couldn’t keep it to himself but preached it to everyone boldly. His punishment? Being hung by his wrists with his hands handcuffed behind his back. He explained that somehow he never felt the pain of hanging in such a way. Miraculously in the middle of the night, similar to what we read in the book of Acts, his wrists were freed from the steel handcuffs and he was free to return home to his wife and children unharmed.
I also had a Muslim background believing friend share with me about a time when he was preaching Messiah boldly after coming to faith and was arrested by a ‘Christian’ police officer for evangelizing. After weeks in jail, he was led by an angry mob out of his cell unsure of his fate. A fight broke out among the mob and he was able to run away, barely escaping through a door that opened for him though it had been locked and not opened for years.
I’ve also spoken with a Muslim background believer recently who, running for his life from a primarily Muslim policed town in the Samaria region, found refuge in a town in Israel policed primarily by Jewish Israelis where his coming to faith was less controversial because of Israel’s commitment to freedom of religion. I’ve had the privilege of joining this friend as he ministers to both believers and non-believers through generous distribution of food and clothing. He meets daily to pray with Jewish, Arab and foreign believers before going about his day’s work and serves wherever God is leading him day to day.
Hope for Things to Come
God is not only revealing Messiah, but also revealing to Muslim background believers His heart for Israel and the Jewish people. The Holy Spirit is doing a powerful work of reconciliation in Israel between Jews and Arabs through the body of Messiah. Those who once believed in a lie are coming to a revelation of the truth, and God is giving these believers a boldness to preach His Word in every place, going where He leads them. As I shared above, there are those ‘Christians’ who are caving to pressures in Muslim communities where coming to faith means getting death threats from neighbours. And yet God is raising up others to boldly proclaim Messiah no matter the cost.
Please pray for strength for these new believers and for the mature believers who are walking with them and sharing with them in the work of Messiah both in Israel and in the surrounding nations. Praise God for His redeeming work and that through the work of the Holy Spirit, those who once hated the nation and the people of Israel are growing a heart for this land and this people. Please pray that Israel will continue to provide protection for those whose lives are in danger because of coming to faith. Pray that this shift from the deception of Islam to a love for Israel will lead to a great awakening in this nation and in the international community that will usher in the coming of our Messiah.