Through the Fire of Persecution

Submitted by Lo Yuk Fai on Fri, 2011-11-11 05:19

The cab was entering the roundabout, as I pointed at a nearby spot and signalled him to stop there. I clumsily got off the taxi with my camera and bag as he thanked me for the little tip. "Ma'a salama," I bade farewell to him with my broken Arabic as he began to drive away. Those are the last words in our short time together.

Those are probably the last words between us in this life. What's the chance of us meeting again? A traveller from thousands of miles away, and a taxi driver among the thousands of men of the same trade in Amman.

And I started walking to the church to meet Pastor Hanna Massad.

This is our third time to meet, and he's as courteous as usual. He invited me to enter the church's guesthouse, and cordially guided me to a seat in a comfortable sofa.

It was after a church service in a Friday evening when we met for the first time, we didn't have a chance to talk for long as other brothers and sisters were eager to talk to him too. A few days later, he invited me for coffee and we spent some time together. He patiently told me his story, his views and hopes for the seemingly everlasting conflict, as a Christian Arab pastor from the Gaza Strip.

But this time we didn't meet to talk about Gaza, but Iraq.

I still remember when we're talking face to face the first time, a man came across to give him a manila envelope. They exchanged a few words in Arabic, the pastor opened the envelope and found some UNHCR documents in it. "Thanks," he said, and carefully put the documents back into the envelope.

Another man from the congregation stopped by, on purpose, and greeted the pastor. He's an old man whose spring of youth seemed to have left him a long time ago. I could almost see his gratitude for the pastor in his eyes.

"These are the Iraqi refugees," the pastor told me. "Every one of them has a story which you can write a book about."

I wasn't fully aware of the weight of that statement back then.

In the days afterwards, I started acquainting myself with the topic. To me, Iraq was about oil; about a crazy man somehow managed to ascend to the rule of the country; about wars - Once as an aggressor and the other time as a defender; about some mysterious weapons of mass destruction that are nowhere to be found; about roadside bombs; about kidnappings…

Little did I understand and realize the extent of the suffering of the ordinary people of Iraq - Those who most often bear the blunt from the decisions made by people sitting in air-conditioned offices.

"It was 2000 when I obtained a PhD in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, and there was a crossroad ahead of me - I could stay in the US, or go back to Gaza." He said with a claim voice, "So I prayed and asked for God's guidance. At last, I decided to go back to Gaza to serve."

He was the pastor of the Gaza Baptist Church before leaving the entangled land in 2007. The Christians in Gaza had been receiving regular death threats. Suhad, his wife, worked at the Bible Society and once there was a bomb exploding in front of the office, which damaged the building and shattered the windows.

"Thank God she wasn't hurt."

The last straw came when the threat finally became substantial - Brother Rami of the Christian bookstore was kidnapped and executed. Upon the government's urge, they left the Strip and settled in Jordan, where he teaches at the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary.

In 2010, the former pastor of the Amman Alliance Church emigrated to Canada, and he took over the responsibility of ministering the Iraqi refugees.

Pastor Hanna giving a sermon to the Iraqi refugees.

The exodus started since the Gulf War. In the beginning, the people who left Iraq were usually the richer ones who sought a safer place to live. The safety problem was made worse by the Iraq War, and the people who left in recent years often came with little or no property at all. After all, most of us probably aren't keen on leaving our homes for an unfamiliar place faraway, even more so when one knows that he won't be able to make a living there. However, when physical violence and kidnappings become the usual, and threats become deaths, what can one do?

"When they arrive, most of them have very little possessions. And they're not allowed to work here, unless they pay a huge sum to obtain a business visa."

The Jordanian government does not consider most of these Iraqis "refugees" but "visitors", who're supposed to go back to their home country soon.

It's hard to blame Jordan though, when the number of the Iraqi refugees are so many that they consist about a tenth of the population, and the country has already accommodated two waves of refugees from Palestine in the past 60 years.

And somehow, the plight of the Iraqi refugees has been flying under the radar thus far compared to the publicity generated by the war itself, leaving organizations like UNHCR inadequate resources to help them. Approximately only one out of ten Iraqi refugees in Jordan receives help from UNHCR.

Syria is another major destination of the Iraqi refugees. However, as we all know, the situation there is deteriorating, and the life of the Iraqi refugees there is not any better. It has been claimed that as many as 50,000 Iraqi women and girls are forced into prostitution to make a living.

"Our ministry is focused on three tasks - First, to bring the refugees here. Second, to share the gospel with them and provide discipleship. Third, send them out with the precious gift of the gospel with them. Indeed, a few of them has already planted churches in their new host countries."

Besides providing spiritual support and guidance, the ministry, which has started 20 years ago, also supports them materially - Coupons for purchasing basic necessities are dispersed to each family a few times per year. They can also obtain free medicine at the medical clinics operated by the church, and English courses are available for a nominal fee.

It's so easy to commit the sin of indifference when you keep hearing about the refugees' personal stories. It seems that almost every one of them has received death threats, was kidnapped, or experienced life threatening attacks at least once. But they maybe the fortunate ones - In many cases their family members and friends had already perished and don't have the breath anymore to come here and tell others about it.

Or maybe they're actually the unfortunate ones, who are still alive, and have to carry with them the traumatic events into a pale future.

During one of my visits, there was an enthusiastic young man who welcomed me, told me about the congregation, showed me the "Jesus Christ" tattoo on his arm, and tried his best to translate the Arabic service into English for me.

His enthusiasm was abruptly quenched when I asked him why he left Iraq - He told me about the bomb exploding outside the church, and then some, with his eyes straying into a fathomless abyss.

The story of a man particularly struck with me - He was the driver for a priest, and so almost always travelled with him. One day, the priest had something else for him to do, and the vehicle was attacked on that particular day. The priest and the people accompanied him were killed, but the driver's life was spared.

And they surely won't get to talk to each other again in this life.

How can someone maintain his saneness, let alone preach the gospel, among these people?

"I think we're somehow connected because we both went through the fire of persecution."

Pastor Hanna giving a sermon.

Still, Gaza remains the cornerstone of the pastor's ministry. He started the Christian Mission to Gaza ministry in 2009 which, besides providing humanitarian support to the Gazans, strive to encourage and support the dwindling but resilient Christian community there.

"I go back there 3 times a year to serve in the church, to do relief work, and to teach in home bible studies."

Anyone who's familiar with the situations in Gaza may imagine, it's not easy spiritually, physically, and monetarily - Earlier this year, the treasurer told him that they had run into a USD15,000 deficit already.

To many people, it seems only human that someone like the pastor would not have any compassion on the people who ultimately caused the suffering of him and his people, isn't it?

"I've learnt to forgive the Israelis, because I'm also forgiven by God," Pastor Hanna told me, "Still, I keep in the safe the deeds to prove the ownership of my family's land, which they took. And I'm hoping that they will compensate for the loss of us someday."

Blessed is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles so that we may be able to comfort those experiencing any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. - 2 Corinthians 1:3-4


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