Observing a hundred years of witness in the region of Israel, Baptists held a three-day celebration attended by guests from around the world.
Baptist work in the region started in 1911 with the return of Shukri Musa to his homeland from Illinois, where he was baptized and commissioned as a pastor. His first convert, Louis Hanna, was baptized on May 10.
The event was held in Nazareth, where the Local Baptist Church is regarded as the mother church of the 3,000-member Association of Baptist Churches in Israel (ABCI).
Several large groups from the United States and Britain attended as well as many Baptist leaders from the West, including John Upton, president of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), and Rev. Tony Peck, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, which includes ABCI.
BMS World Mission was represented by its global ambassador, Rev. David Coffey, and by Rev. David Kerrigan, its general director.
British Baptist ministers Peter Eyre, Mark Hatto and David Ronco were also present to represent Baptist Twinning in Israel, the partnership organization begun in 1999 by the Bedfordshire Baptist Association, now part of the Central Association, in Great Britain.
Representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board (IMB), which supported the ABCI for many years and laid the foundations of denominational life, brought greetings.
Gordon Fort, IMB vice president of the Office of Global Strategy, delivered a sermon as part of a session in which Southern Baptist missionaries who served in Israel and Palestine over the years were honored.
Baptists from elsewhere in the region, including Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, were unable to attend because of their countries’ difficult relationships with Israel.
The event included a full schedule of conferences, seminars and panel debates.
“This centenary was first and last a celebration of Arab Christian life and witness,” said Rev. Phil Hill, a Baptist minister from the United Kingdom who teaches at the Nazareth Evangelical Theological Seminary.
“The language of the meetings was mainly Arabic, with translation provided into English. The music was an exuberant display of traditional Arab singing styles. And the heroes of faith recalled during the event were local believers alongside generous tributes to the pioneer missionaries,” he said.
“Their stories are inspiring, with many noble examples of faithfulness in the face of much opposition and sacrifice of material prospects for the sake of serving the gospel.”
Kerrigan with BMS World Mission took part in a panel session on partnerships between East and West, introduced by Philip Saad, pastor of Haifa Baptist Church.
As well as BMS’ current involvement in Baptist work in Israel, it was noted that BMS had supported work in Nablus during the latter half of the 19th century, through the work of Rev. Youhannah El Karey and his wife, Alice Maud Roper. This work was little known until recent times when research by Professor John Briggs unearthed the story.
Greetings from the BWA were brought by Upton, who spoke on John 10:9, where Jesus describes himself as the “door.”
“God has opened doors for you these 100 years at every key moment that you needed one,” he said. “Remember as you begin your next 100 years, that where there may not appear to be a way to accomplish your dreams and mission, God will give a way.”
The climax of the celebration was a baptismal service at the Yardenit baptism site, where 15 local people – some from other faiths – were baptized by Pastor Hani Sayegh from the Baptist Church of Acre and Pastor Munir Kakish from Ramallah Baptist Church.
A new olive tree was planted there as the first official recognition of its special place in Israeli Baptist life as their national baptismal pool.
This article appeared originally in The Baptist Times of Great Britain.