Last Sunday afternoon, along with 40 members of Kingdom Faith church, including Colin and Caroline Urquhart, I was in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem. We had arrived in Israel just a few days previously and after travelling around the Galilee, we had made our way up to Jerusalem. One of the reasons for this tour was to meet with as many local believers as possible … both Jewish and Arab … to sit with them and hear their stories with the intention of supporting them.
Nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to hear. We had spent the morning at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Here you see the unfolding story of the suffering and death of millions of Jewish people under Hitler’s Nazi regime. Now we were on our way to Beit Jala for a meeting with the Bible Society team from Gaza where we would be brought face to face with the increasing suffering that is currently being experienced by Palestinian Christians living in Gaza.
Labib Madanat, who is director of the Bible Society’s work in Israel, including the Palestinian areas, had arranged for his team to come out of Gaza following the murder of Rami Ayyad, manager of the Bible Society book shop in Gaza City. Traumatised by the events surrounding Rami’s brutal death, and in the wake of ongoing threats from Hamas, Labib,through the help of many Christians around the world, was able to receive from the Israeli Authorities a permit to allow his team to come out of Gaza for a while giving them a chance to recover and consider their future.
And so, it was with a sense of humility and inadequacy that we made our way through the checkpoint and entered Bethlehem. What could we say to these people? Would we meet Pauline, Rami’s widow? Rami was just 30 years old when he died. Pauline is left with two young children and she’s pregnant with their third child.
As we drove our coach through Bethlehem and on towards Beit Jala, Colin Urquhart spoke to our group to brief them as to who we were about to meet. For most this was their first visit to Israel and entering Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, was their first experience of being in an entirely Palestinian area under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The contrast between Israel and the West Bank is stark. The mood on the coach was quiet.
We were making our way to Beit Al Liqa’, an impressive Christian training and community centre founded and run by Johnny and Marlene Shahwan (Their web site is well worth looking at – www.beitliqa.org ). Johnny was there to meet us; he had made Beit Al Liqa’ available for the families from Gaza. He introduced us to Hanna Massad, Pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church, and Hanna’s wife, Suhad, who leads the Bible Society team in Gaza. We entered the room where the rest of the team were sitting waiting for us to arrive. Looking around I noticed how young they were … married couples with babies and toddlers – just like Rami. There were approximately 20 people there although it was difficult to be accurate as children were continually running in and out followed by one or other parent!
And then we were introduced to Pauline, Rami’s widow. She was sat quietly holding one of her children. Colin asked Hanna how he would like to proceed. Hanna suggested that he would speak first and tell our group exactly what had happened to Rami, and then Pauline would share her story.
And that’s exactly what happened. Hanna spoke about Rami; he had known him well. He put his story in context and described what it’s like being an evangelical Christian in Gaza today. Of the 1.5 million inhabitants in Gaza, 3,000 are Christian. Of that 3,000 only a few hundred would describe themselves as evangelical; the rest belong to various Orthodox Christian churches. We were left under no illusion that to be an evangelical Christian in Gaza today is dangerous.. Having said that, Hanna described the ache in his heart to be back in Gaza being the shepherd of his flock. ‘The people miss us’, he said. ‘We have to go back.’
And then Pauline stood up and through Hanna’s translation she told us how Rami had noticed a car following him one Thursday just a few weeks ago. On the Friday he had seen three bearded men in the same car drive slowly past the bookshop and stare menacingly at him. In fact, his sister had overheard him talking on his mobile phone that afternoon; a strange conversation she recalled – Rami had told no one about this call – but it later became clear that his would be attackers were threatening him.
But it was on the Saturday that Rami was snatched, about 4.30 in the afternoon, whilst closing the bookshop. Concerned he was late home, Pauline told us how she had called him on his mobile phone. Rami replied he had been ‘delayed’ and may be late. Pauline realised something was wrong and called Rami’s brother who also called Rami on his cell phone. Rami replied and managed to tell his brother that he was being held by a group and would be ‘away for a long time’. After that the phone was switched off.
Rami’s body was found the next morning. He had been tortured before being murdered and his body dumped.
Labib Madanat, Director of the Bible Society in Israel had arranged for his traumatised team to come out of Gaza. Will they return? Pauline, told us how she is planning to go back. She is willing to carry on serving Christ in Gaza in love and commitment just as Rami was.
Two days later, Labib Madanat came to speak to our group at the hotel in Jerusalem where we were staying. He has ultimate responsibility for his team members and it was clear that the death of Rami has been a huge loss. But Labib told us he wanted to bring us a message of hope. He didn’t want us to go back to England with heavy hearts. Rather he wanted us to know that the gospel is spreading even in areas where there is much resistance. He told us of miracles; of breakthroughs. He told us of his love for Palestinians and he told us of his love for the Jewish people. How can this be? ‘God alone has put this love in my heart’, he shared. He also shared how overwhelmed he had been by the response by the Messianic Jewish community within Israel to Rami’s death. ‘Their response has thrilled my heart’, he said. ‘Their concern and their generosity has united us as never before. We are in this together.’
Last month I wrote about Labib Madanat and specifically about the work of the Bible Society in Gaza. Having now met the Bible Society team from Gaza I can assure you they are a committed group of young families dedicated to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ within their Muslim community, whatever the cost.
As Colin Urquhart prayed for Pauline and the team, he told them that he believed Rami’s death would ultimately result in a revival in Gaza and beyond. He reassured them that Rami had not died a needless death. And he prayed that every team member would know beyond a shadow of a doubt what God would have them do next. Colin then asked Pauline if he could pray for the man who murdered Rami; apparently Rami had been his twelfth ‘victim’. And so we joined Colin as he led us in prayer for this man … that he would come to realise Rami was no ordinary person; rather he was a child of God.
We were invited to stay for some refreshments and as we listened to these people it was clear they were all at different stages in their thinking; some were ready and keen to go back to Gaza whilst others, particularly one young father I spoke to who had his young daughter in his arms, described his feelings. ‘I’m not sure’, he said honestly, ‘but if God wants me back there, I’m willing to go – I just want to be sure.’ Rami’s death has galvanized them. Yes, they are grieving. Yes, they realise the danger. And yes, undoubtedly they realise they too may be murdered for their faith.
More than ever they need our support. Last month I wrote about The Olive Tree Fund set up to support the work of the Bible Society. Already you have donated over three thousand pounds. All of this money is being used to support those who are working in this extremely dangerous region enabling them to share the love of Jesus with their desperately poor and impoverished (physically and spiritually) Palestinian neighbours.
The response to Rami’s death, especially from the Messianic Jewish believers in Israel has been unprecedented. A special fund has been set up to support Pauline Ayyad and her children. So as we prepare to celebrate Christmas let me invite you to spare a thought for the Arab Christians in Gaza and other Palestinian areas in the Holy Land. And if you would like to send a gift to them via The Olive Tree Fund, please send me your donations. As always, every penny you give will be sent. If you would like to donate specifically to the fund for Pauline Ayyad, please attach a note to your donation making that clear.
Thankyou to those of you who have donated so far; I have written personally to those of you who enclosed their addresses – to the rest, a heartfelt thanks. May you each enjoy a peaceful time as we remember the birth of Jesus who came from heaven into this world, to Bethlehem. The shepherds were amazed when they heard the news – it was not what they were expecting! But as they hurried to the stable to check it out for themselves, they were convinced. May our prayer be that many more will be amazed when they hear for the first time about the birth of Jesus. It’s maybe surprising that in the land where Jesus was actually born, there are many who have not yet heard.
If you would like to send a donation please make out your cheque to The Olive Tree Reconciliation Fund and send it to me, Julia Fisher, PO Box 850, Horsham, West Sussex, RH12 9GA