Christian Expansion in the Arab States
While recently touring Near Eastern and Oriental areas with his secretary in the interests of expanding Christian missionary work, the Society’s president, N. H. Knorr, sent this report from the Arab countries.
BEIRUT, Lebanon, on Christmas eve would remind most Americans of New Year’s Eve. Brother Henschel and I found that out while trying to sleep there through the night of December 24, 1951. The effort was largely wasted. Not long after the noise had subsided we had to get up in order to catch an early plane to Jerusalem. We had been in Beirut only long enough for a stopover visit with the local Kingdom publishers and some that had come over from Tripoli and points in between. However, we planned an early return to Beirut following an assembly in Ramallah, near Jerusalem.
Because of our traveling in a Lebanese plane our flight to Jerusalem followed a circuitous route. Lebanese and Syrian aircraft do not fly over the modern state of Israel where they would run the risk of being shot at. But we did not mind the extra half-hour this added to our flying time, for the trip afforded a highly interesting study in Biblical geography.
We gained altitude, swept southward over the land once called Tob and on past the territory that God gave to the children of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan. On the southern tip of the sea of Galilee we saw the waters going out through the Jordan river toward the Dead sea. The valley is fertile all the way down to the Salt sea, but becoming less and less so as one goes southward. It is easy to see why the ten cities spoken of in the Bible as Decapolis had their location to the east and just south of the sea of Galilee.
I had the opportunity to sit next to the captain in the cockpit, thus gaining an extraordinary view of the territory. Along the northern portion of the Salt sea and to the east of it was the onetime land of Reuben, and below that the lands of Moab and Mount Seir. A few miles to the north of the point where the Jordan flows into the Dead sea the captain pointed out the city of Jericho and the hills that continue to rise until the city of Jerusalem takes its lofty place in the hills of Judah. I could see distinctly the cities of Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and in the distant west Jaffa and Tel Aviv. Beyond that was the great Mediterranean.
ASSEMBLY IN RAMALLAH
We landed on a little strip in the hills between Jerusalem and Ramallah and soon made our way into Jerusalem, skirting along the Jordan side of an area near the city known as “No man’s land” which separates the states of Israel and Jordan. Then we arranged for a car to take us to the home of the Society’s local representative in Beit Jala near Bethlehem south of Jerusalem.
On the way we passed “The Field of the Shepherds”, so called in memory of the shepherds who were watching their sheep on the night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It is a place not far from the city and they could easily have walked in to see the Lord on the night of his birth. But it could hardly have been on the night of December 24, because on the 25th when we were driving through the region it was prohibitively cold. There were few shepherds to be seen and little green grass or stubble on which sheep might feed. More harmonious with such known facts is the evidence that Christ was born around the first of October, a point more in keeping, too, with his baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan river, which took place when Jesus had just turned thirty years of age. In October, but certainly not in December, one might expect the temperature of the Jordan’s waters to accommodate the baptismal program of John.
Learning in Beit Jala that Brother Kobrossi, whom we sought, had already proceeded to Ramallah for final assembly preparations, we followed at once. That afternoon we located him and discussed the problems affecting Jehovah’s witnesses in Jordan. Strange to say, this land, so favored nineteen centuries ago with the birth of Christianity and the first announcement of the glad message, “The kingdom of the heavens is at hand!” is today in sore need of more preachers to advance the cause of pure worship. We told the brothers there of six missionaries on their way from America, two of whom will be assigned to Bethlehem and Beit Jala and four to Ramallah. It developed that five regular Bible studies conducted in the vicinity of Jerusalem have a total attendance of about ninety-five persons. Of this number only twenty-two were actually publishing the Kingdom message.
The next morning forty-nine of us gathered in the front room of one of the brothers’ homes for the opening session of our assembly. Brother Chimiklis, a graduate of Gilead, opened with a talk on “The Way of Success”. Brother Henschel next gave good counsel on walking by the spirit and keeping oneself and the organization clean. I followed, basing my remarks on the apostle’s strong admonition for all members of the congregation to be ministers, for which reason he had written Christians everywhere to heed the supreme importance of this office, a minister of the Most High. This concluded an enjoyable morning and we turned our attention to the public meeting scheduled at 2 p.m. in the Town Hall.
No printed advertisements or signs had been used to announce the subject, “Will Religion Meet the World Crisis?” Just two hours of activity in this regard now took place, and that only by the brothers’ calling on persons of good will known to be interested in the Kingdom message. We were pleasantly surprised, therefore, on arriving at the Town Hall, to find it nearly filled. By the time the talk started listeners were standing in the hallway. Ninety-two in all were present, including the mayor of Ramallah, who afterward said he believed that more of this kind of information should be given to the people of his city. During the concluding session back at the private home, I urged the local publishers to aid the missionaries who would soon be with them to learn the Arabic language, and showed how in turn the missionaries would provide them all with much help in their witnessing work. Explanation of the Society’s plans for local organization was eagerly absorbed by this group so interested in becoming more proficient ministers of the Kingdom.
THE “HOLY CITY”, MOSLEM VERSION
With a portion of the next day to ourselves we were anxious to visit the old walled city of Jerusalem and see the location where the temple had been planned by David and built by Solomon. Now considered sacred ground to the Moslems who control it, Christians can enter only between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m., and then by special permission. Central point of interest now is the mosque called The Dome of the Rock, inside which is the highest peak of Mount Moriah, rising about five feet above the floor. The top of the rock bears an expanse approximately thirty feet by twenty feet, around which is a wooden barricade and which is supposed to mark the spot where the Jews’ altar of sacrifice had been located. It was on this very Mount Moriah that Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him in sacrifice to Jehovah as commanded. The spot’s interest to Moslems rests in the claim that Mohammed is here supposed to have last touched earth when he ascended to heaven. The part of the rock which allegedly shows his footprint has been cut off and put in a special boxlike shrine with an opening to allow devotees to touch it.
Not far from here is the “Golden Gate” in the walls of Jerusalem through which Jesus and his disciples entered the city when the Lord came down from near Bethany over the mount of Olives to make his triumphal entry into the city and be hailed as the son of David. It proved a very interesting landmark, since from there we could get the perspective of the temple site in relation to the mount of Olives, the valley of Kidron, Gethsemane and other places of Biblical significance. Leaving the temple area we passed the famed “Wailing Wall” of the Jews, said to be part of the foundation of Herod’s temple. But there are no more Jews in the walled city to wail at this wall as we saw them doing in 1947. A guide told us that now the Orthodox Jews stand in their State of Israel facing this wall and continue their wailing. We were soon flying back to Lebanon, leaving in our wake this city of wailing, much more a symbol of sorrow than of hope to the diverse religions that have branded it “holy”. In the near future the reign of Christ the King will bring the establishment of pure, undefiled worship everywhere on earth, making necessary no pilgrimages here or bloody crusades to wrest one piece of ground from the grasp of its possessors. It was good to know this troubled area was being served by devoted believers in Jehovah’s service.
BAPTISM IN THE RAIN
We were on hand for the following day’s opening of the convention scheduled for Beirut. Brothers were there from all parts of Lebanon and many from Syria. Conspicuous in the crowds were large numbers of young men and women. The attendance reached 260 by the time of Brother Henschel’s talk on Friday evening, December 28. We had a taste of the unusual when the electric power failed in our section of the city about halfway through this address, but Brother Henschel continued without a break. A few candles were brought into action until the lights were restored. On Saturday morning a small outside pool was furnished with warm water to make immersion candidates more comfortable, and twenty symbolized the dedication of themselves to God and his service despite a heavy downpour. During these first two days extensive advertising of Sunday’s public meeting was carried on while the attendance continued to grow in the Kingdom Hall, where the sessions were held. By Saturday night 400 were present.
On Sunday, December 30, all activity was transferred to the chapel of the American University, where the public meeting was set for three o’clock. “Will Religion Meet the World Crisis?” was the issue that our advertising had succeeded in making the question of the day in Beirut, and 793 persons came to hear the answer. Their applauses were loud and enthusiastic as one point of argument after another touched them off. At the close of the talk the listeners happily received a new booklet in Arabic, a matter of as much special joy as it was surprise to the brothers, for it meant having new information to use in the field service.
This convention was a gratifying experience in a land where interest in the Kingdom has soared rapidly. A little more than two years ago the Society sent two brothers to Beirut, where a small group of six persons was organized but badly in need of assistance. Now the company has over 100 publishers. Four more missionaries were sent there about a year ago and still another eight arrived three months ago. The latter group is assigned to Tripoli. In 1947, when I last visited Lebanon, there were 99 publishers on the average. In 1951 the average was 301, with a peak of 401, showing plainly the expansion in this land of one and one-half million people.
SYRIA AND ITS PROBLEM MOSLEMS
On Monday, December 31, we got an early start by car for a scheduled visit to Syria. A crisp ride through mountain snows was relieved by a descent into the long valley that boasts Lebanon’s most fertile land. It is here that Baalbek is located, which, however, was not on our route. A city had been built there and in Nero’s time temples were erected to Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. Native stone was taken from a nearby quarry in huge slabs and a great center of devil religion was set up. The ruins still stand to point silently back to the ancient worship of Baal with its base sexual orgies with which the practices there had been associated as well as the pagan worship of Rome. The valley produces fine wines which would lend themselves readily to the drunken ceremonies in honor of Bacchus.
The fertile plain was quickly traversed. Then through the Anti-Lebanon range, the border formalities of Lebanon and Syria, and down the winding road into the city of Damascus. We had a little time to see the city, the modern part of which is very progressive in appearance. Interest carried us to the street called “Straight”, mentioned in the Bible, particularly to see the portion of the wall of the old city that contains the window where Paul was supposed to have been let down and made good his escape. (2 Cor. 11:32, 33) There is no doubt that parts of the old wall are still there, but we doubted seriously that the window we saw and which is above the main entrance of a church was the window it pretended to be. It looked much too new to be the same window or, in that portion, the same wall as in Paul’s day, because the city had been attacked and wrecked and conquered many times by invaders. Anyway, the window over the front door of the church provides good advertising for that particular church. The account in the Bible is authentic, but one wonders about the authenticity of that particular window.
We waited for the funeral procession of a Moslem priest to pass. Immediately before the coffin walked a man with a husky voice who wailed and cried for the ones that followed after. We were told that he was paid to do this. We noted no women in the procession.
That afternoon from two to four o’clock Brother Henschel and I spoke to forty-five of our brothers, fifteen of whom had come from Lebanon to encourage those in Syria. The Syrian publishers were overjoyed to hear that the Society would soon try to send missionaries to Damascus to assist them.
The work in Syria faces excellent prospects. It was organized about three years ago with one full-time pioneer minister and nineteen company publishers. Now there are fifty-seven publishers, and a peak of eighty-two was reached last year. Moslem influence, much stronger in Syria than in Lebanon, presents a major problem. It is very difficult to talk to a Moslem about Christ’s ransom sacrifice or his being the Messiah. The Moslems hold to a doctrine that sometime someone will come to show them the way and establish a world government on earth. To them Christ is only another prophet and Mohammed a greater prophet. They implicitly follow their Koran and remain adamant toward the Bible. On the other hand, about fifteen per cent of the population is composed of nominal “Christians” who have the Bible in common with Jehovah’s witnesses and among these interest is growing, some already having become Kingdom publishers. When we finally had to say good-by to these very friendly brothers we motored away from the skyline dotted by Moslem minarets and returned once again to Beirut.
REJOICING AMID PROGRESS
We were back to begin the new year in Beirut, further discussing matters concerning the work in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, all of which come under the jurisdiction of that office. At midmorning all of the missionaries stationed at Beirut joined us and we went by car to visit the new missionary home in Tripoli. We arrived in time for the midday meal, which was followed by discussing their problems with the Tripoli missionaries. Shortly some of them may be sent to Aleppo in Syria to help in the expansion of the work there, and when they go they will be replaced in Lebanon by others recently graduated from the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, if such proves to be the Lord’s will. There are advantages in sending experienced missionaries to Syria, because these brothers will know more of the Arabic language and will be better able to get along in Syria, where much less English is spoken than in Lebanon.
That night a two-hour meeting was scheduled for the Tripoli company and persons of good will in the vicinity. Some came from other companies too, packing out the Kingdom Hall’s main auditorium and adjoining overflow rooms with 302 persons. Between Brother Henschel and me, I had Brother Tuttle the branch servant and Brother Chimiklis talk. These brothers had been the first two missionaries in Lebanon and they spoke now in Arabic. Both did well and the audience was pleased with their efforts. It is hoped that in three months these brothers will be able to serve the companies as circuit servants without interpreters and also give their public talks in the Arabic language. They are going to try hard to do this, and I feel sure that with their efforts and the Lord’s blessing they will succeed.
We drove back to Beirut that night because there was a lot to do the next day, finishing our work in the office and getting ready to leave for Karachi, our next stop. Our fellow workers in Lebanon are very enthusiastic and very happy over the progress that has been made in the preaching of the good news during the last few years. They appreciate that the Society has sent missionaries into their midst to help them. They in turn have helped the missionaries by furnishing teachers of the Arabic language from their midst, and all of the missionaries have been grateful for this. The work continues to be blessed by Jehovah.