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"Living stones offer Christian witness in Holy Land" - An article published By James A. Smith in the Florida Baptist Witness

NAZARETH, ISRAEL (FBW)— Evangelicals who come to the Holy Land as tourists and those who love Israel for theological and political reasons, should understand there is a vibrant Gospel-preaching ministry in Israel today—"living stones" who also need the support of fellow evangelicals, according to Baptist leader Bader Mansour.

Mansour and other leaders of the Baptist Association of Churches in Israel met in Nazareth—the home of Jesus—with nine Southern Baptist newspaper editors Jan. 11 who were guests of Israel's Ministry of Tourism for a six-day tour of the Holy Land.

In a follow up e-mail interview with Florida Baptist Witness, Mansour, executive secretary of the association, reflected on the work of Baptists and other evangelicals in Israel, the "pressures" faced by evangelical Christians and Messianic Jews, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When evangelicals visit the Holy Land, they should try to connect with local evangelicals while there and "they ought to see how they can help their brothers and sisters in Christ—both Arab and Jew—in their ministry to reach out to the community and learn more about their challenges," said Mansour, an Arab who was born in Jerusalem but who has lived in Nazareth most of his life.

The Baptist Association of Churches in Israel (www.baptist.org.il) was established in 1961 with three churches. Today, there are 20 churches with 800 baptized members and a broader community of 3,000 believers. The churches are generally Arabic-speaking, although there are also Hebrew, Filipino, and Hispanic congregations.

With Israel's total population around seven million, estimates of the total number of evangelicals in Israel are about 20,000—including Arabs, Messianic Jews (those who accept Jesus as the Old Testament's promised Messiah) and ex-patriots. Within the West Bank and Gaza—territories under Palestinian control to varying degrees—Mansour estimated there are 2,000 evangelicals.

Although Nazareth was once a majority Christian city, today only 25,000 of its 70,000 residents are identified as Christian.

One of the most well-known ministries of Baptists in Israel is Nazareth Baptist School. NBS is the only evangelical K-12 school in Israel founded and run by Southern Baptist missionaries for many years before being turned over to local Baptists in 1991. Mansour's brother, Botrus, is general director of the widely acclaimed school. The school has 1,000 students, 78 percent Christian and the rest Muslim, and a faculty 90 percent Christian.

NBS "aims to have children grow in wisdom, stature and grace before God and man in the same place where Jesus grew as a child," Mansour said.

Another educational endeavor of the association is the Nazareth Center for Christian Studies, launched in September 2007 to train pastors. The association is also currently planting five new congregations.

Nazareth First Century Village is a collaborative effort of Baptists and other evangelicals to recreate the look and feel of the town where Jesus grew as a child 2,000 years ago when Nazareth was a village of just a few hundred.

Although Christians and Muslims have lived in "relative harmony for hundreds of years in Galilee and Nazareth," Mansour said in recent years an attempt to build a major mosque near the Basilica of Annunciation, marking the location where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel to announce she would bear the Messiah, heightened tensions in the city. Now a city park occupies that land with a banner quoting a verse from the Quran.

"Messianic Jews and Muslim converts [to Christianity] are under lots of pressure" in Israel, according to Mansour. "The same goes for active evangelists who are pressured by Muslims as well as nominal Christians."

Orthodox Jews in Israel offer regular "harassment" of Messianic Jews.

The conflict between Israel and Palestinians should not cause evangelicals who support Israel's right to existence to ignore the need for justice for the Palestinians, Mansour told the Witness.

"My problem is with those who think that I must evacuate my home and since it is the will of God that all non-Jews leave Israel in order for Jesus to come back faster," Mansour said. "These Christians blindly support the modern state of Israel, even though it may also do wrong."

Mansour added, "I think lots of evangelical Christians have become real estate agents advocating the right for Israel to take the last 20 percent [of historical Palestine] from its legal owners because it is 'God's will.'"

The main focus in considering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "should be, 'Father, may your will be done,' and pray for the peace of Jerusalem," Mansour said, adding, "Personally, I pray for all leaders of the region and the others involved that they will be brave enough to make peace that will bring security to the Israelis and justice to the Palestinians."

Other Baptist work in Israel is sponsored by the Baptist Convention in Israel, which works in concert with the Baptist Association of Churches in Israel.

The BCI (www.bcisrael.com) sponsors the Baptist Village, a 60-acre site in Petach Tikva in the Sharon Plain for camping, conferences and sports, including Israel's only professional baseball league. The BCI also sponsors Jerusalem Prayer House, which tourists can visit during their pilgrimage and pause to offer prayer for Gospel missions throughout the world.

BCI representative Herbby Geer told Baptist newspaper editors in a Jan. 10 meeting at Baptist Village that Holy Land tourists can register their visit on the BCI Web site and request information about BCI's work in Israel.

One project of BCI, the Tabernacle Model at Timna Park, 20 miles north of Eilat on the extreme southern tip of Israel at the Red Sea, is attracting as many as 1,500 visitors per month who can see a life-size replica of the biblical tabernacle the children of Israel used in their wanderings in the dessert.

"This is the land of the exodus," Geer told the editors, noting that many visitors are motivated to study their Bibles after seeing the tabernacle model.

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