This morning, we attended the worship service at Local Baptist Church, nearby in Nazareth. Local Baptist Church is the largest evangelical church in Israel, with over 100 members. The church meets at Nazareth Baptist School, a K-12 school with nearly 1000 students. After the service, we heard from the director of the school, Botrus, and a pastor from the church, Azar. We were privileged to hear about their church and school ministry (which reminded us of Orangewood!) and heard the particular challenges of being an Israeli Arab church in Israel.
An interesting aspect of Middle Eastern culture that is especially hard for Americans to understand is the implicit link between ethnicity and religion. We think of a person’s religion as something that they choose, or at least something that is changeable. In the Middle East, your religion is a social group that you are born into based on your ethnicity. With this reasoning, Israelis are Jewish, Arabs are Muslim, and Europeans and Americans are Christian. Even if you do not actively practice this religion, it is still the identifier of who you are, and not something that you could change, just as you could not physically change your ethnicity. This is an extremely hard bias to overcome, and, if you do not fit into this standard parameter, then your political and religious allegiance is always being called into question.
Pastor Azar explained that being an Israeli Arab Christian is to be a minority within a minority within a minority. Pastor Azar told us a story about when he was on his honeymoon in Greece, and told the captain of his boat that he was from Israel. The man said, “Oh, so you are Jewish?” and he said, “No, I’m an Arab.” And the man said, “Oh then you are Muslim!” and Azar said, “No, I’m a Christian.” The man had no way to understand these contradicting ideas! These are the attitudes that Israeli Arab Christians face every day, and as Pastor Azar shared, it is often lonely, tiring work.
Pastor Azar referred to Israeli Arab Christians “a forgotten people” who are often lumped into larger categories, but never truly seen or understood. Please pray for these believers and for their faithful work right here in Jesus’ hometown!