"The faces of Christianity in the Middle East are changing," says Mike Niebur, a Messianic Jewish leader from Jerusalem and good friend of mine. "We now have Pastors named Muhammed or Pastor Achmed."
Real change takes time, and I remember back in 1982. My IDF tank battalion was moving towards Beirut to flush out Yasser Arafat, and the PLO who were hunkered down beneath the civilian population. That's when I met Omer, a Southern Baptist from the USA, who was hip-hopping across the Lebanon, on a BMW motorcycle, preaching the gospel to Hezbollah Muslims.
One day Omer brought his friend, Eli Hizbani, a Jew hating, Hezbollah jihadist from South Lebanon, until he stepped on a mine and blew up both of his legs. "As the blood drained from my body, I lost consciousness," Hizbani said me with a twinkle in his eyes. "That's when I saw Jesus, and he told me to come to him. I don't remember everything that happened, but I found myself in a field hospital, telling other Hezbollah soldiers how Jesus saved me!" he told me.
Soldiers in my unit were moved by his story, so Omer and Mike brought Hizbani to Jerusalem where he began talking to Jews and Arabs about what happened to him. Back in those days we were shocked, and thrilled, that a Muslim jihadist would, or even could, believe in Jesus. "I love the Jewish people," Hizbani told me on his latest visit to Israel as we walked through the Old City of Jerusalem (he still limps). "When Jews hear my story, and I tell them about Jesus, they are shocked and want to hear more," he says.
This month, some thirty years later, my friends Mike and Omer brought a group of 70 Muslim background believers (MBB's) from around the Middle East to Jerusalem. "These men are laying down their lives by coming to Israel," Mike explained. "Some of them might be sent to prison when they return just because they visited the Jewish nation. They will be targeted by the Arab governments and even by Jihadists when they return to their home nation," he told me.
They call the gathering "CrossRoads." Over the years, they have seen the gradual fulfillment of a prophecy in Isaiah 19 which talks about the Lord building a highway of Christians across the Middle East, from Egypt to Assyria, with Israel in the midst.
The Israeli government is also showing interest in the MBB's. "Israeli Knesset members are calling us asking for access to our contacts. They want to build relationships with the new Christian leadership across the Middle East," Mike says.
Together with the 70 MBB's at the conference, members of the Israeli Knesset, including a former advisor to the Prime Minister's office, attended the meetings. Mike believes that the Israeli government is beginning to recognize that Christianity, and missionaries, can have a positive impact on the Middle East.
"Once they see and experience the country, these MBB's become potential supporters of Israel, they go back to tell their own people. When they get a taste of the freedom here in Israel, it is intoxicating for them," Mike explains.
David Pillegi, pastor of Christ Church in Jerusalem's Old City, where the gathering was hosted, teaches the Muslim converts about the Hebrew context of Jesus and the New Testament. They are also being taught about the significance of the restoration of the Jewish people coming back to Israel, their ancient homeland. Egyptians and Iraqis are studying Hebrew. Israeli Messianics are traveling to Arab countries to help Muslim refugees. Iranian and Iraqi refugees coming to faith in Turkey now represent more Christians and churches than the entire Turkish church.
I hope these stories are a source of hope and inspiration to you, that our faith is making a difference, even in the tumultuous world of the Middle East.