BEER SHEVA, Israel (Mennonite Mission Network) — Following a Christmas Eve riot outside their congregation that led to property damage and personal assaults, leaders of a Beer Sheva Messianic Jewish congregation are waging a writing campaign to Israeli politicians and leaders to try to protect themselves from future acts of violence.
According to Howard Bass, pastor of the Nachalat Yeshua Messianic Congregation in Beer Sheva, the congregation’s campaign desires only to give honor and glory to the name of God and Christ, while seeking to protect religious freedom. The letters from members of the congregation and supporters aim to call attention to persecution and harassment of Messianic believers in the region which culminated in the Christmas actions.
A long-time Mennonite Mission Network appointee, who has been a prayer partner with the Beer Sheva minister, said the move is a call for justice so that Messianic Jews are no longer threatened. Reconciliation with the Orthodox Jews present at the riot is hoped for, he said, but unlikely.
The worker called the situation a modern version of a page from the book of Acts.
“With this kind of religious fanaticism, it would be like reconciliation happening between the religious leaders in the Sanhedrin and Peter and John,” the worker said. In Israel, he added, belief in Jesus often becomes a stumbling block.
In a Dec. 29, 2005, letter printed in the the Jerusalem Post, Bass said extremists controlled the direction and tone of the demonstration, but some participants seemed ashamed of the violence.
According to members of the congregation, a crowd of mostly Orthodox Jews estimated at more than 500 people gathered outside the Beer Sheva meeting place Christmas Eve. During the service, leaders had planned to baptize two adult women, one of whom was born into a Messianic Jewish family.
Yossi Cohen, who identified himself as one of the demonstration organizers, wrote in a Jan. 5 Jerusalem Post letter that his group had received information that the congregation intended “to baptize tens of Jews from all across the southern region of Israel. This in our eyes was a red line that could not be crossed.”
Cohen wrote that crowd members, whom he described as mostly ordinary Israelis, not extremists, were fed up with Beer Sheva’s departure from its Jewish roots and culture.
“We did not attack Howard Bass personally for his beliefs but because of the hunting of innocent souls by those who abuse the difficult socioeconomic situation of innocent and sometimes ignorant Jews … to influence them to believe in Jesus Christ,” Cohen wrote.
During the demonstration, several Orthodox rabbis used the gathering to preach against the Messianic movement. With shouting and derisive songs, the crowd overturned chairs, destroyed an overhead projector and the church’s sound system and threw furniture, plants and playground equipment into a baptismal pool.
Some in the crowd approached members of the congregation. Witnesses reported that assailants knocked the pastor into the baptismal pool, grabbed him by the throat and broke his glasses. Others in the congregation reported receiving blows to the face, back and stomach.
One believer said a large man screamed at him, asking if he was a missionary – a term used by many religious Jews for all Israeli Messianic believers. Before the believer could answer, the man struck him in the face.
The believer said the Holy Spirit moved in him: he blessed his attacker. The man responded by screaming, “I hate you,” and moving away.
Police, who Bass said witnessed much of the event, eventually dispersed the crowd and the congregation proceeded with a modified worship service during which they prayed for the police and for their fellow Israelis.
“The members all had a clear understanding that the violence suffered was identification with the sufferings of Jesus and for His name’s sake,” the Mission Network appointee said. “They went home rejoicing that they were considered worthy.”
Added the pastor, “Just pray that the name of Jesus would be lifted up and righteousness would prevail.”
The Mission Network representative and the pastor became prayer partners after a retreat among Messianic Jewish leaders in the Negev desert several years ago. They continue to support each other as part of the Messianic community in Israel.
Photos and video from the disturbance are available online at www.ha-makom.com.