Three Baptists from Middle Eastern nations shared about Baptist identity and witness in their countries, stressing how they live as a minority group in their nations and sharing their efforts to build bridges with their non-Christian neighbors.
Coming from Israel, Syria and Iraq, the three men offered unique perspectives to other Baptists during a forum on Friday at the annual gathering of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) in Izmir, Turkey.
“Baptists and evangelicals are a minority in a minority in a minority,” explained Azar Ajaj of Israel as he noted how as an Arab Baptist he is a minority within the mostly non-evangelical Middle Eastern Christian churches, with the mostly Muslim Arabs, and within the mostly Jewish state of Israel.
Ajaj, president of Nazareth Theological Seminary (the only Arab seminary for pastors in Israel), explained that Baptists in Israel started in Nazareth in 1911.
However, two world wars and the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 destroyed much of the community.
Thus, most Baptist churches today were established after 1948 and include mostly first- and second-generation evangelicals, often from Catholic or Orthodox backgrounds.
Ajaj, who helped translate for the other two on the panel, said that there are nearly 20 Baptist churches in Israel, most of which are in the northern part of the country. He added that they are growing “slowly but steadily.”
Because a Baptist school in Nazareth has garnered a reputation as one of the better schools, Ajaj noted even non-Christians attend to acquire a good education.
He called the school “one of the good bridges for Baptists building relations.”
Ajaj said Baptists in Israel have freedom to practice faith and the freedom to evangelize, but he hopes Baptists will do more to reach out to those of other faiths.
He also spoke of the need for Christians in the nation to forgive Muslims for past actions and his hopes for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Territories. “We hope that we can be a bridge between these two communities,” Ajaj said.
Mazen Hamati, pastor of the Baptist Church in Tartous and Safita, noted that Baptists in Syria only started in 1952 (in Damascus) and remain only one of three evangelical denominations in the country.
He said Baptists have grown “slowly but continually” even though there are generally no funds to help pastors or efforts to start new churches.
A pastor since 2003, Hamati said he stays because he feels called to serve there.
He said Baptists and other Christians “face serious conditions,” especially legal issues that keep them from being allowed to own a church building.
Yet, since the law does not allow a house church to exist, they move around so that it does not meet too regularly in one place.
This can create problems as they change locations, especially for women and in the winter.
Hamati said Baptists work well with other evangelical Christians in the nation and do not emphasize differences between the groups.
“We are a minority as evangelicals,” he explained. “As a minority we need each other.”
When asked what makes Baptists distinctive during the panel discussion, he said that Baptists “have the courage to baptize non-Christians” and “this fact puts us in difficult place with surrounding people.”
Because of evangelistic efforts, Baptists are called the “most dangerous” Christians.
Although his area has not been directly in the war that has ripped through Syria over the past three years, refugees from other parts of Syria have flooded the cities in which he ministers.
Hamati and his church started ministering to 16 displaced families in 2011. That number has swelled to more than 1,600 families. Most of those being helped by the Baptists are Muslims.
“We try to help with communication and food, and this gives a good reputation for the Baptist church,” Hamati said. “And this changes the negative picture painted about the Baptist church.”
He added that the refugee ministry helps them overcome legal issues because they go to minister where the people are instead of inviting them into their homes.
Hamati said his church serves everyone and does not take sides in the conflict. Yet he said they are often caught “between two sides.”
If they serve pro-government refugees, the anti-government forces do not like it—and vice versa.
He hopes to help with a reconciliation ministry like that in Acts between the Jews and Gentiles after Peter met with Cornelius (see Acts 10).
Ara Badalian, pastor of the National Evangelical Baptist Church in Baghdad, said that evangelicals came to Iraq toward the end of the 19th century but remain a minority among Christians in the country.
Given that no new denominations were allowed until 2003, the church he pastors is only 10 years old and most in the church are first generation in the faith.
“Since we don’t have a long heritage, many people don’t see the difference between Baptists and other evangelicals,” Badalian stated.
He noted social and cultural challenges—including to the historic church traditions that date back to the first century in Iraq—that can cause problems with marriages and other legal tasks.
He said Baptists enjoy good relations with other evangelicals.
Badalian, who is an Armenian who was born in Baghdad, explained that most evangelical churches are primarily made up of a single ethnic group.
In addition to the main worship services, Badalian’s church also started home groups that “reach out to people who cannot get easily to church,” saying it is easier for Christians to get to a house gathering.
Badalian said that even after someone converts, that individual might not want to be baptized because that can create problems with families or neighbors.
Thus, he stresses that communion is for those who believe and not just baptized into the membership.
Explaining the challenges facing Baptists and other Christians in Iraq, Badalian reminded those present of the flight of many Christians since 2003.
Christians numbered about 1.5 million in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. That count has fallen to less than 500,000 today.
Badalian expressed his hope that a Christian presence will remain in his nation even amid war and other challenges.
Hamati of Syria echoed a similar fear about the Christian witness in his nation in the near future.
“Our fear is that there’s no Christians that will remain,” he stated before adding, “Our hope is in Christ’s word, against which no man can stand.”
Editor’s note: Watch a video of Azar Ajaj speaking about the role of the evangelical church in promoting peace in Israel during the 2014 BWA gathering in Izmir here.