Rev. Ibrahim Simaan, a mentor and personal friend, died this summer at the age of 75 after a long ministry. When I initially tried to tell his story, I realized that the issues that he spent his life working on are more relevant today than ever. Ibrahim’s moderate and independent thinking did not only impact the church over the last 60 years, but his example will also greatly shape the face of the Arabic church in Israel in the years to come.
“And by faith still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4).
Ibrahim was a Baptist pastor, but he was a strange bird among pastors of his generation. He was very knowledgeable, witty and funny, sarcastic and direct. He never pastored a local church, although his influence was greater than the four walls of any church building. So, who was this man?
The following are probably the ten most important issues facing the Arabic church in Israel these days. Ibrahim contributed to each one of them.
1) War, Conflict and Refugees
When Israel was established in 1948, most members of the Nazareth Baptist Church left their homes and became refugees in Jordan and Lebanon. Fortunately, three missionary ladies kept the church going. Ibrahim was a young child when he witnessed how these women transformed the church building into a food distribution center for refugees. When the church was revived in the 1950’s, Ibrahim joined the Nazareth Baptist Church and worked closely with its pastor, Dwight Baker.
Since that time, wars and refugees have been ongoing themes in the Middle East, and so naturally, Ibrahim tried to engage in political dialogue, especially between Jews and Arabs. In 1972 he was in the forefront of the protestors demanding the return of the Christian Arab villagers of Iqrit and Biri’m to their homes, a struggle that persists today. In the early 1980’s, when Israel conquered Lebanon, Ibrahim worked with people who suffered from the conflict. He helped open a school in a refugee camp in Lebanon, assisted the injured by ensuring their medical care in Israel, and saw to their spiritual needs as well. During the war, he became an interim pastor of a Presbyterian church in Alma Al-Shaab, a village in Lebanon. As a pastor Ibrahim’s demonstration of dedication, stamina, compassion and sacrifice continues to inspire those who are currently working with the many suffering people in the Middle East.
2) Struggles with Church Governance
Being a relatively young church in the Middle East, Arab Baptist churches in Israel struggle with structure, constitutions, and the question of how to ‘do church.’ With this in mind, in 1965 Ibrahim worked on building church structure with the establishment of the Association of Baptist Churches (ABC) in Israel. The constitution that Ibrahim and others drafted for ABC in 1965 was revised in 2009 to reflect a new era where greater need for interdependence between the churches was required, and bylaws for these relationships were drafted.
In recent years, Ibrahim would drop in at the business meetings of the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel, when his health would allow it. He would bring lots of color to these meetings. With his wit and humor, he would remind everyone that church constitutions had not been invented yesterday and that there had been earlier church planting and theological education ventures. When the younger generation of leaders assumed they already knew everything and could do ministry better than their elders, Ibrahim would wisely give historical examples of failure and success. I still remember the laughter when he told the ABC chairman that he was trying to sell water in the neighborhood where people who sell water live. I do not recall that people were ever offended by Ibrahim because he always combined criticism with a sense of humor.
3) Church Conflict
Church conflict and divisions have been a part of life among Israel’s Baptist churches over the last 25 years. Shortly after Ibrahim moved to Nazareth, when his wife died and he remarried, he joined and served as an assistant pastor at Nazareth Baptist Church, the mother church of the Baptist churches in Israel. In an attempt to bring reconciliation between three churches that split in1992 and 1996, Ibrahim threatened to go on a hunger strike until the churches united during the 100 year celebration of Baptist Witness in the Holy Land in 2011 that brought guests from all around the world. When he discovered that the parties would not come together, he took a stand; Ibrahim left and joined the small church plant of the Good Shepherd Baptist Church where he assisted as much as he could until the last day of his life.
4) Relationship with Jewish Christians and Messianic Jews
Between 1968 – 1971 Ibrahim was involved in a unique experiment in the city of Haifa with a joint congregation of Jews and Arabs. This church had three pastors: a Jew (Brother Gutkind), an Arab (Ibrahim), and a Southern Baptist missionary (Dwight Baker). In an interview with Baylor University in 1989, Baker recalls the ongoing predicament:
“Brother Gutkind will come out to preach, and he would sometimes preach from Psalms or Isaiah that Jews are going to get this and get that and that the gentiles would bow down before the Jews… And, when the Arab pastor (Ibrahim) would get up, he would preach something else, like Paul’s saying that there’s no difference, no Jew, nor gentile, no Greek nor Barbarian, they’re all one in Christ…. And, then I will come up and preach something sweet in between”.
Ultimately, the experiment failed, and the church ceased to exist in 1971. The Arab parishioners joined the local Anglican Church until Baptist work was renewed in town some years later. We have a lot to learn from this historic example.
5) Relations with Western Christians
The relationship between expatriate Christians and local Christians is complicated in Israel, as there is increasing interest in Israel among Evangelical Christians. This relationship is further complicated by a financial aspect since local Christians are often financially dependent on Western Christians, and Western Christians often tend to control the local churches.
The combination of Southern Baptists and Arab Baptists working together created a myriad of potential challenges. Wisely, Ibrahim acknowledged the importance of partnership, even though he did not always agree with the missionaries; at times he would strongly argue with them, but he still managed to keep good relations with them. As a result, they loved and respected him as an authentic voice of the local people.
Ibrahim also reached out to Ness Ammim, the European Christian village in Western Galilee that was originally built to “bless Israel” with its European expertise in agriculture. After many years, Ibrahim was able to influence Ness Ammim to take a more balanced approach to the relationship between Arabs and Jews and to host dialogue groups. He also encouraged them to connect with the small Christian community in Galilee and open their beautiful hotel facility to groups that usually struggled to find a welcoming place to hold their church retreats.
6) Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations
Baptists and other Evangelicals have struggled for years in their relationship with the historic Christian churches. With that in mind, Ibrahim strongly believed in cooperating with other Christians, even in those days when Baptists did not cooperate much with other Christians. Ibrahim knew that since Christians in Israel are a small minority, they must work together, even if they do not always agree on every theological subject. Fortunately, today’s younger generation of pastors is more open to working with other Christians.
Ibrahim’s friendships extended beyond Protestant boundaries. One of Ibrahim’s good friends was Bishop Raya, the Melkite Catholic Bishop of Galilee. He was also very active with Sabeel, an ecumenical ministry.
How befitting that Ibrahim, a true ecumenical, was ultimately laid to rest in a Greek Orthodox vault, instead of in the Baptist cemetery.
Ibrahim also had many Muslim and Jewish friends and viewed dialogue between these different faiths as a way to build peace in this conflicted land.
7) Church and State
Southern Baptist missionaries in the early 1950’s refused to be recognized as a Christian denomination in Israel because they strongly believed in separation of church and state. This was a historic mistake since recognized denominations receive state and public recognition and are invited to participate in official programs. Besides receiving special tax breaks, these recognized churches get more protected autonomy in managing their church affairs, ecclesial tribunes to deal with personal status, recognition of converts from other faiths and a share in budget allocations from the Office for Religious Affairs.
Even the validity of marriages performed in a Baptist church is controversial because the denomination is not recognized. With these issues in mind, the Convention of the Evangelical Churches and the Association of Baptist Churches have been working towards official recognition in recent years with Ibrahim lending a hand. He worked with government officials on issues related to Protestant Christians as early as the 1970’s and was hired by the Ministry of Religious Affairs as a special consultant. His efforts resolved some issues, but the official status of Baptists and other Evangelical Christian groups is still not granted. This situation remains a priority for the years to come.
8) Theological Education
Our area did not have a theological seminary for many years, but the Nazareth Evangelical College (NEC) was recently established as a local seminary serving the Arabs in Israel. It “trains leaders, men and women, to follow Christ faithfully and to be equipped and qualified for serving the church in the Holy Land enabling it to have a powerful influence on society according to God’s purposes.”
Many years before NEC was established, Ibrahim was involved with the theological education initiative of the Southern Baptist missionaries. In 1964 Ibrahim began ministry as a translator for the Christian Service Training Center (CSTS) in Haifa, under the leadership of missionary Dwight Baker. Those years were also fruitful in Christian publications where Ibrahim co-edited the local monthly magazine Al-Jamaa (The Congregation), a Christian publication that focused on current issues related to Baptists and Christians in Israel.
9) Church Planting
In recent years, it become more difficult to plant churches in Israel, mainly because of the lack of resources and commitment needed to wait for the church plant to grow and become an independent church.
Ibrahim was a long-time supporter of church planting. In 1956, he convinced the respected leaders of his home village of Turaan to allow Baptist missionaries to plant a church in the village. He was also part of church planting in Haifa more than once, even though his calling was not to be a local pastor. In recent years, he was very supportive of the new churches that were planted in the Nazareth area. I remember very well how he came to the ordination of Pastor Salim Shalash while having severe pain in his back, just to show his love and commitment to Salim, a fellow church planter. When his health allowed it, Ibrahim volunteered to preach whenever he was invited, helping young pastors take a break from preaching every Sunday.
10) Preaching the Word of God
The core of our church is sharing Jesus of Nazareth as hope to the world, something Ibrahim was deeply committed to. He began his ministry as a translator, taking pride in translating the famous sermon “Payday One Day” for legendary preacher R.G. Lee for the Cana of Galilee Baptist Church dedication service in 1961. He transcribed an Arabic version of this sermon and preached it many times. Ibrahim preached in churches around Israel, Lebanon and the United States. He also preached in the Nazareth Hospital where he served as a chaplain for many years.
Even though Ibrahim became very sick in recent years, he loved to share the Good News so much so that he would even preach with an oxygen mask when necessary. When his physical body began to fail, he became an online pastor via Facebook, sharing Jesus’ message with many people who do not attend church.
On June 24, 2016, Ibrahim went to be with his Master after a long journey. Ibrahim’s physical presence is not with us anymore. However, the lessons from his ministry will accompany us for years to come