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The Prince of Peace in Israel: Arab pastor leads thriving

It sounds like a pastor’s nightmare, and anywhere else, it just might be.

Samuel Aweida’s church has 120 members who speak 17 mother tongues and represent an array of cultures. On any given Sunday, worshipers hear the sermon in at least three languages. Their political differences alone could split the church many times over. Outside the church, those same political views lie at the root of enmity that began when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. The differences still rip apart the region in violence that causes many descendants to daily fear for their lives.

But in the Prince of Peace, the Beit Eliyahu congregation of Messianic Jews in Haifa, Israel, thrives and celebrates the risen Lord amid its diversity. Its goal is shared with many other Messianic evangelical churches: to reach Jews with the good news of salvation through Y’shua—Jesus.

God’s Chosen Arab And perhaps the greatest irony is Aweida himself: he is an Arab and among the most prominent Messianic Jewish pastors in all Israel.

Aweida, 35, grew up in Beit Eliyahu, which he has led for more than six years. As the son of the maintenance man of a British mission organization in Haifa, his parents and their children lived on the mission’s property. Hebrew was their children’s first language. Aweida barely speaks Arabic and has little contact with Arabs. “Even though my parents were Arabs, I was taught that the Jews are God’s chosen people, no matter what politicians say,” Aweida said.

Politics can get in the way of ministry, he says. Some churches that invite him to speak are Arab. He tells them he must preach in Hebrew, which is universally understood by Israeli Arabs. One time a politically focused Arab pastor wouldn’t let him address the church in Hebrew. “I told him to take it or leave it, and he left it,” Aweida said. “Some Arabs, maybe most, are not too crazy about what I stand for and do to support Israel, and what we think about the people of Israel.”

But even though Israel is perceived by outsiders as a place rife with mistrust, Aweida is largely accepted among society’s Jews. “Maybe some have problems with it, but they’d have problems with any Gentile being in Israel,” Aweida said. “Actually, I have a hard time convincing people I’m not Jewish because of my language and everything.” A fellow Messianic leader called him the most Israeli pastor in the Messianic movement because most pastors have come from abroad and don’t command Hebrew as well as he does.

A Door to Outreach That gives Aweida, along with his congregation, an “in” to minister to Jews, especially immigrants who face hard adjustments to Israeli culture, and to the Jewish youth who are searching for meaning in New Age religion. Both groups are open to the gospel.

The Messianic movement in Israel is growing, but figures and statistics are hard to glean. “People are coming to faith, and the ex-Soviet immigration had a great impact with the new people coming, so there’s growth,” he said.

In fact, among the immigrants are so many Russian-speaking Messianic Jews that Aweida fears the “ghettoizing” of Messianics who huddle together within their own culture and stand aloof from the rest of Christ’s body. But at the same time, it’s not as difficult to reach immigrants with the gospel if they find a congregation that shares their language and background. “They come from a very closed culture, and they are receptive,” he said.

For now, anyway, Aweida says that Israel’s Christians are free to evangelize those older than 18 without restriction. His church can minister to minors—even take them to camps and retreats—with parental permission, which he says parents normally grant. To reach the children, his church reaches out to the parents.

Obstacles to Evangelism? It’s frustrating for Aweida never to hear rabbis speaking out against the New Age movement, “But as soon as they hear the word ‘Y’shua,’ you’re in trouble, while they [New Agers] worship idols and it’s no problem” for Jewish leaders.

Still, Aweida feels in no way persecuted. “People shouldn’t feel sorry for us,” he said, adding that Messianic believers and lawyers are fighting anti-evangelism bills through Israel’s legal system. Lawyer Marvin Kramer, a Messianic Jew from Brooklyn, heads the Messianic Action Committee that poses legal challenges to anti-Messianic bills. None of several tries to ban evangelizing have passed, “and that’s very important to emphasize,” Aweida said.

Interestingly, most of the conflict about sharing the gospel with Jews is abroad, he said.

Ministry before Politics Aweida describes Israelis as “very evangelistic.” He’s never seen a church or believer organize a conference on politics, the prophecies of Israel’s borders or other topics that consume evangelicals focused on the Holy Land. He has, however, been to many conferences about prayer, evangelism, reaching Jews and building healthy churches. “That’s what occupies us,” he says. “We live in this country. We love our neighbor. Tell me, what can I share with my neighbor that’s better than Y’shua?

“This discussion is irrelevant for my congregation and for all of the others I know. Should we evangelize? It’s not a question. I don’t know how a church can have this discussion. That’s why we’re here.” ----------

The Messianic Movement at a Glance

2003: 90 Messianic congregations (Hebrew-speaking fellowships) with an estimated 6,000 members—including children and non-Jews

In the 1990s, a rapid influx of Russian believers contributed to expansion. Today, despite reduced immigration, growth in Messianic congregations continues due to people coming to faith.

Adult members of Messianic Congregations: • 61% Jewish • 18% non-Jewish but married to a Jew • 6% non-Jewish with Israeli citizenship of whom 21 were Arabs/Palestinians (0.6%) • 15% non-Jewish without Israeli citizenship.

Source: Kai Kjar-Hansen and Bodil F. Skjott, "Facts and Myths about the Messianic Congregations in Israel," Mishkan 30/31, 1999.