27 August 2015
Living for Christ in the Middle East
With the Islamic State threat intensifying and many Christians fleeing, you might think it all looked pretty hopeless in the Middle East. "Not true - God is moving", says Sami Dagher.
Pastor Sami Dagher is president and founder of all Alliance churches in Lebanon. He is a church planter and has now set up three churches in Iraq, 22 churches in Syria and further in Sudan and Cairo. "I wish I was like Paul, every week he would plant a church," Sami said.
He also runs a Bible school in Beirut and another in the Nuba Mountains in Sudan, where many of his Syrian and Lebanese pastors are trained.
It all started in 1960 in the UK, tells Sami: "I was working in the Hilton hotel in Park Lane, London. I was searching for happiness and I couldn't find it in wine, a good time or dancing. I thought marriage would make me happy, so married a beautiful British girl, but we were not happy for a few years."
The couple then moved to Lebanon and met a US missionary couple who offered to study the Bible with them for six months. "My wife became a Christian two months before me, but once we had accepted the Lord we began to know true happiness."
"Through reading that every man is born from man and woman except Christ, who was born from the Holy Spirit, and that every grave is full of bones except the grave of Christ, who truly rose from the dead, I found God and decided to worship Him."
"If you are a Christian, you have to live like Christ"
At a 1971 conference in Amsterdam, Dr Billy Graham spoke on the need for missionaries in Europe and the Middle East. He asked the crowd to pray and promise in their own language if God has spoken to them. Sami responded in Arabic: "Lord, I want to serve you"
Getting down to the ministry
Afterwards, back in Lebanon: "I started studying the Bible and going round coffee shops, telling them about Jesus and winning people to Christ. At a home Bible study there was a man who became a Christian and he had a building in the Karantina area that had been burned in the war. He gave me two rooms to renovate to start a church. We enlarged it and bought the whole building. Now 300-400 people attend."
Dagher started sharing his faith with his family, fasted and prayed. At 83, his mother died as a believer and, at 70, his older brother became a Christian and Sami baptised him.
Dagher and his team started helping Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and now they are helping Syrian and Iraqi refugees. He helps Muslims and Christians –"we help everyone." Many of the Christians from areas like the ancient city of Nineveh (now Mosul) in Iraq are fleeing to Kurdistan, so help is provided there. The outreach involves distributing food and clothes, telling them about Jesus and giving out New Testaments.
"In Lebanon each month, 300 families, Iraqi and Syrians, come and get food parcels. Volunteers go to people's homes and deliver food and pray with them," says Sami.
"It is about showing them the love of Christ. They have to decide, no one can force them," says Sami. "If they don't see the love of Christ why should they become Christians?"
Of the 400 people in Dagher's church every Sunday in Baghdad, about 30 per cent are from different religions. It seems many Muslims are becoming disillusioned with their faith, and looking to the Church for answers.
"One day I got home after helping in the Palestinian camps and my wife and son were crying. Paul, 13, had opened the door to a man with gun who said: 'Tell your Dad that if he continues to help the Palestinians you are going to be killed.'
"I stayed up all night asking God what to do, says Sami. "The only verse I felt the Holy Spirit bring me is: 'If your enemy is hungry give them bread, if thirsty, give them water. Love your enemies. Pray for them.' I cried: 'Lord, my son is going to be killed.' I heard nothing further."
The next day in obedience he took a camper-turned-medical-clinic to work with an Armenian Doctor to check Palestinians' health, buy medicines and take it to their homes.
That evening at 10pm the doorbell rang again. This time a gun was placed on Dagher's chest. "The gunman shouted: 'Didn't your son tell you what happened?' 'Yes, he did' I said. Then I just stood there, braced and said. 'Shoot, you coward!' He left.
"The only way that the Church can face the challenge of persecution is to get to know God more. We are so afraid that we dilute the word of God because we do not know who we are serving.
"David, when he was dying, told Solomon to know the God of his father –to worship him with whole heart and willing spirit. When we know our God is mighty and great and in control of everything we are not afraid anymore."
To Dagher, persecution is just part of the course: "Whenever you become a Christian you're going to be persecuted, because Jesus said if they love me they love you and if they hate me they hate you. There is opposition on every side. We have been accused of being Jehovah Witnesses and of bribing people to convert. But we continue."
Flee or stay?
With all the conflict, persecution, turmoil and the very real threat of war in Lebanon and surrounding countries again, it is not surprising that Christians are leaving the Middle East. Dagher estimates that 80 per cent of his original church congregation in Baghdad have left, but he hasn't helped anyone leave. "The church is still full with new people coming," he insists.
"Christians are leaving the area because they are afraid. Once they know who God is they will be ready to die for his name's sake. We are the light of the world. If the Middle East is such a dark place who is going to shine there if Christians leave?"
"I encourage people to know Christ and then nothing else matters much. To live in Christ and to die is gain! It's about living and being prepared to die for Christ."
Dagher's ministry has partnered with Samaritan's Purse programmes in Northern Iraq and across the Middle East.