For the second year in a row I was invited to a reconciliation conference between Israeli Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians. Last year was a challenging and eye opening affair, culminating in a joint statement of points of agreement and disagreement between the parties but with the commitment to treat each other with respect and love. The purpose this year was to listen to one another’s stories with the hope of building relationships and even working together on projects.
When I learned that this year’s meeting was to be in Athens, Greece, I asked the coordinators about the possibility of meeting and ministering to Syrian refugees, who flooded the shores of Greece over the past few years. Although it wasn’t specifically part of the agenda, I learned that one of the Arab pastors had started a ministry in Athens among the Syrians, and he was planning to bring some humanitarian goods to some of the families. I, Stacy, our daughter, Amy, who was a participant this year, and several others opted to join the pastor instead of touring historic Athens.
Most of the approximately 62,000 Syrian refugees still left in Greece reside in the north, hoping to be transferred to various European countries. Several thousand, however, ring Athens in refugee camps. I was told that the government forbids visitation to these camps. In addition, hundreds of larger families have government- subsidized housing in the city. This is the group that the pastor ministers to. Since there were about twelve of us joining him, he split us into three groups, each group visiting with one family. He explained the situation of the different families. When he said one family was headed by a former member of the Syrian parliament, I knew that was the one I wanted to meet.
It was a bitingly cold and windy day. We met another refugee, who had become a Christian and coordinated the pastor’s work in the city. Unlike the family we were planning to visit, he was from Iraq. In fact, his father had been a major general in Saddam Hussein’s army, responsible in part for battling the Iranians during an earlier war. Following the US invasion, Iranian-backed militias killed his father in front of his eyes. He fled to Syria, Turkey and now Greece, where he met the Lord.
We took the subway to a station near the refugee’s home. We stopped to buy groceries since we were told the father would not receive money, albeit the fact that he had none. When we entered this small apartment, it was packed with a large family eating a meal together. All the women were shrouded in Muslim garb. The father whisked us into another room. Apparently, he had become a Christian a few months ago, but his family was not, and Muslim neighbors were over. So, he would talk to us privately until the neighbors left. We introduced ourselves as Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians from Israel, and that rather than consider Syria an enemy, we prayed for the Syrians. We then asked him to share his story. He began to tell an incredible and heart breaking story of the family’s journey over the past several years.
He has a large family. They lived in Syria near the Turkish border. One of his daughters died in an accident at a young age. I said I had heard he had served in the Syrian parliament, and told him that I worked in the US Congress in the past. He explained that he also owned a prosperous trucking company that transported goods back and forth from Syria to Turkey. I then said interestingly that when my great grandfather came to the US from Russia, he also started a trucking company, in New York city. He said he hoped my life wasn’t as tragic as his.
He was elected into the parliament through an independent party. However, the Assad government was increasingly pressuring him to join its party. He refused and resigned. When the Arab Spring erupted and trouble started in Syria, he sent his family into Turkey. He then ran for parliament again and won again. He requested the government not mistreat the protesters. The government accused him of being a traitor, and he fled to Turkey. The Syrian government and ISIS confiscated all of his property in Syria, though he still had property in Turkey. Near his home in Turkey there was a hospital tending to the Syrian refugees. He said what he witnessed there was a horror show. The Turks raped and murdered the refugees in the hospital and sold their body parts on the black market.
He tried to expose the truth of what was happening by informing Turkish government officials. The result was that he was jailed, and all of his property in Turkey was confiscated. After being released, he traveled to Istanbul to expose the corruption and atrocities to various foreign embassies with the hope that the information would be shared with the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He was told to contact the embassy again in a few days, and the information would be passed on. The reality, however, was that the person who translated his report was a government informant. He decided to send his oldest son to Athens because he knew trouble was coming. That was the last he heard from his son, about fourteen months ago. He assumed his son was kidnapped and either jailed or killed. He went to the Turkish courts to demand justice. Shortly thereafter, Turkish security informed him to leave the country within 48 hours or his family would be killed. Thus, he and his family fled to Greece on a dinghy boat exactly a year ago.
In Greece, he had the opportunity to flee with his family to Europe, but he was told he needed to work through one of the humanitarian organizations. Because of delays within the organizations, he waited, and then the doors shut in Europe. Now, he and his family are stuck in Greece, with no work permits, and nowhere to go. He said he was incensed with Islam. He heard of a Christian organization and started attending a Bible study, organized by the Israeli Arab pastor who arranged the visit. As he read the Bible, he saw the radical difference in teaching between Islam and that of Yeshua, especially about loving your enemy, and thus he began to trust the Lord. It was at this point in his story that his wife and the rest of his children entered the room, the neighbors having left. They knew about his new faith but listened attentively as he shared the story. The children were extremely cute and well behaved. Of course, I had to make a bunch of sounds for the kids and even performed my famous coins in the eye trick (Euros, no quarters), which the kids loved. We asked if we could pray for the family, and they said certainly. When I think about this picture, it’s simply amazing. Here we are: a few Messianic Jews and a Palestinian Christian pastor from Israel praying for this family with the wife fully garbed in Muslim black. We prayed blessings, prosperity, hope and comfort, a future for them and that God would find their missing son. It was incredibly emotional and powerful. Even though I knew the father would not receive the money, I hid some behind a pillow on the couch.
Afterwards, we met with the rest of our group at a restaurant, and the other groups that visited other refugee families had very similar stories. Folks, this is what the love of God is about – bridging political and regional differences through listening to each other, working together and loving one another. Stacy and I are dedicating ourselves to fostering our relationship with our Arab brothers and sisters who were there at this conference, especially those who live in close-by Nazareth. We intend to help the Arab pastor, who has the outreach among the Syrian refugees. While the US government is freaking out about Muslim refugees and the Israeli government is making life more and more difficult for the Palestinians, as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.