Information on the Southern Baptist Church in Jerusalem [ISR21637.E]

The following interview was conducted with the Southern Baptist Church representative in Israel. The interview was held in Jerusalem on 27 April 1995.

I represent the largest evangelical Christian denomination in America, the Southern Baptist. We have around 38,000 congregations in America, and about 18 million members around the world. Our church has 25 representatives in Israel, of which 5 are located in Jerusalem.

I have been living and working in Israel since 1973. I love living in Israel and I intend to spend the rest of my life here. I want to be positive about Israel as a whole. Although we had short periods of difficulties at the hand of a small group of radicals, on the whole it has been a positive experience to live in Israel as a Christian. It is clear to me that there is more freedom of religion in Israel than in any other country of the Middle East. I would also like to convey that I am bothered by the fact that Israel has no written constitution, although there are basic declarations of rights that deal with religious freedom.

It has been my experience that the government does try to provide a pluralistic society, and does try to respect the rights of Christians, Moslem, and Jews. Only 2.5 per cent of the Israeli population considers themselves to be Christians. This number puts the Christian communities in a severe minority status.

As I understand it, Israel has inherited certain problems of relations with the Christian Churches from the British and from the Ottoman Empire. The more recognizable Middle Eastern Churches (Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) come under what we call "status quo" which gives them somewhat greater Christian rights. Our church, as well as many other, has the legal status of "Amuta". This status provides churches with specific rights as non-profit organizations. One of these rights is the obligation of the police to provide protection. It would be better for Christians if Israel had a recognized legal status for "Church".

The problem is that religious rights are not equally and uniformly distributed among the Christian churches in Israel. When Israel became a State in 1948, the Christians in general had a lot more rights, as I have been told. The best way to express the slow decline of the rights of Christian churches in Israel is that of an ice pic picking at an ice block a little bit at a time. The decline has been so gradual that the Christian communities have not opposed or argued with what has been taking place. However, if one examines the last 47 years, there are a tremendous number of rights that have been taken away from the Christians communities. For example, we now receive tax bills on Christian properties. Christian communities never received tax bills for their properties until the last few years. Although the Ministry of Religious Affairs says not to pay these bills, it is another government department which sends the bills to the churches. Churches are generally not paying these bills. If one is aware of how the Israeli government deals with organizations that do not pay their bills, the fear is that in the future some government authority may try to confiscate sections of church properties to cover these unpaid bills.

It is my opinion that secular authorities like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Religious Affairs are trying to help Christian communities in Israel. However, there is a wide gap between Prime Minister Rabin and the influence of the Orthodox religious parties. Within the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Department for Christians is very small in comparison to other departments. Therefore, services to Christian communities tend to be slow and underfunded. For example, Christian communities are supposed to get refunds on value added tax. However, our church has been waiting for a substantial refund for quite a period of time. Eventually, we will probably receive the money. In my opinion, it seems that there is pressure exercised on, and from within, the authorities to create obstacles for the Christian communities.

The Southern Baptist congregation is one of the most visible and best known Christian churches in this area of Jerusalem which is composed mainly of orthodox Jews. We have been in this area for approximately 70 years. During that period we have experienced serious problems. Our church's front windows have been broken more than twelve times, we have been robbed around six times, we have been bombed twice, demonstrated against, and suffered arson in 1982 during which our books were piled up and burned along with the church building. Although these are serious incidents, I must emphasize that these acts were committed by a small minority of Jewish radicals.

In the case of criminal arson, nobody was arrested or brought to trial. However, we had a very good idea of which group committed the arson and, as far as I know, the group is currently outlawed. Similar acts have been committed against other Christian churches. Again I must stress that in any country radicals may cause serious incidents. During my 22 years in Israel, I can say that in general Israelis are kind, accepting, truthful, helpful, and have been good friends.

As far as our church is concerned, we feel that we have freedom of religion to a great extent. However, there are certain actions that it would be unwise to do, such as distributing Christian pamphlets in front of the Western Wall or in an orthodox neighbourhood. However, if people come on the church property and ask questions, I can say whatever I like. I will certainly share my faith as I have done in many parts of this city. I will not force my faith on anyone, especially not on children. For example, a child asked me for an interview on my faith and I refused to give it unless he brought his father with him during the interview. He brought his father, and we had a great interview. The father conveyed his appreciation to me for having the sensitivity to invite him. These are unwritten rules. In other words, I find that if I make it clear to everyone about my faith in Christianity, I am accepted by most people.

As for the Soviet immigrant community, I think that unlike their Jewish counterparts, Christian immigrants would have a difficult time as Christians in Israel. This is mainly due to the fact that Israel has not yet taken a decision about what to do with the Christian community in the country. Soviet immigrants whose religious identity is ambiguous would also find it difficult in Israel. I think the main question is why these people left Russia. If they came to Israel because it was the only way for them to leave the former Soviet Union, it is likely that they never intended to live in this country in the first place. First, those who are using Israel as a transit for another destination may not give Israel a fair chance. If people come to Israel under false pretences as self-declared Jews, and it is later found that they are in fact Christians, that might anger Israelis. For example, I have been told by one Russian Christian that he lost his job when it was discovered he was a Christian.

Not unlike their Jewish counterparts, Soviet Christians will experience integration problems. They may have a cultural shock coming to this country. They do not know the language, the culture, the society, and they are certainly not prepared to live as a religious minority. In addition, they did not learn how to live in a free society. They are coming from a society where everything was given to them, where the State was the provider of all the goods in the society. Once in Israel, they have to work hard to acquire material advantages. One obstacle would be that given the chance, Israeli Jews will probably hire a Jew from the former Soviet Union before a non-Jew. I know I would hire a Christian to accomplish certain tasks related to Christianity. In other words, they are coming to Israel with integration handicaps. However, it does not make Israel a horrible place in which to live.

In summary, these difficulties may trigger disenchantment, especially for those who never intended to remain in the country in the first place. For example, I know Soviet Jewish believers who came to Israel under the Law of Return and they love the country. They love the country and they want to stay because they are believers. I do not believe that Christians coming to Israel from the former Soviet Union put their personal lives in danger. I have never been personally assaulted. I think the building was attacked because it stands as a symbol of the presence of Jesus here. As a Christian, I do have rights in Israel.

I believe that one of the future challenges of the State of Israel is to write a clear legal status for churches which would clarify the legal rights and standings of Christians and churches. The problem is that a significant number of rules are not written down. It is very difficult for churches to protect their rights when few of them are even written. It opens it up to various interpretations of the current law according to unwritten practices. The danger is that interpretations might vary with changes of authorities. Hence, the need for the protection of a written legal document guaranteeing those rights.

I am trying to provide a positive image of Israel, but I certainly recognize that there are problems in this country with regard to Christians. Despite the problems our church has encountered here, I do love this country and its people. I also feel that the secular Jews are already pushing against the demands of the orthodox Jewish communities on them.

I just hope there can be more legal, written and uniform rights for Christians, churches and church property in this country.