Some people are still surprised that God has given me what I can only call a special relationship with President Yasser Arafat and also certain Palestinian leaders. Some sincere Christians misunderstand this, and people I don’t know write letters of warning. One person who surely meant well angrily finished his letter ‘May God have mercy on your soul’, because of my times with President Arafat. My preaching responsibilities and television appearances have given me opportunity to ask Christians in America to pray for Yasser Arafat. The consequence of this has been an overwhelming response on the part of believers from all over the world who have thanked me again and again for reminding them to pray for Palestinians as well as Israel. Almost without exception they hadn’t even thought of it!
I have invited a number of well known Christian leaders in the past two years to join Canon Andrew White and me on trips to Israel and Palestine. Andrew White, Canon of Coventry Cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to the Middle East, is probably the only man in the world to maintain a relationship with both Israelis and Palestinians. I have said often – including many times when I am on television – that Canon White should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope he will be so honoured one day. Most of these high profile leaders I have invited have declined, mainly because it would not help them with their followers who would misunderstand their having contact with Israel’s foes. I understand their position and I would never criticize them. I only know that I have chosen to walk in doors I never dreamed of opening.
I would not be so pompous or pious as to claim to be like Jesus, but I know one thing for sure: Jesus would go into Ramallah and visit Yasser Arafat. When Jesus went to Jericho and gave special attention to Zacchaeus he was criticized by the religious people (Luke 19:1-9). Zacchaeus was a ‘short man’ and I have wondered if he and Arafat are about the same height!
I began praying for Yasser Arafat daily over 22 years ago – never expecting to meet him but because the Holy Spirit laid him on my heart and gave me a love for him. That love has not changed. I don’t know whether Yasser Arafat has ever felt unconditional love from many people, especially from the West, but I want him to feel it from me. I have had one goal: to be Jesus to him.
John Wesley used to say that God does nothing but in answer to prayer. I don’t mean to be unfair, but if Christians in America had spent as much time praying for Yasser Arafat and Palestinians as they do praying for Israelis and Jews – which can only be right, I believe the situation would be vastly different in the Middle East at the present time. Jesus loves both peoples equally. He would not be political however, he would only demonstrate his love for them.
Recently Dr. Michael Youssef, the minister of the Church of the Apostles of Atlanta and of the TV and radio ministry ‘Leading the Way’ accepted my invitation to visit Israel and Palestine.. During the first week of September Dr. and Mrs. Youssef and their son Joshua and I journeyed to Israel – mainly to meet President Arafat and the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Yasser Arafat had his 75th birthday only days before we saw him on September 2nd. I brought in a Bible – in English and Arabic – which he seemed very pleased to receive, and we gave him also some crystallized fruit that I knew he loves. You will see this in the pictures that are connected to this article.
Dr. Youssef said to him: ‘The prince of peace was born in this part of the world . . . and we know He is the only one who can gives us peace . . . it is our prayer that He may give you wisdom to achieve peace.’ President Arafat was pleased to receive this word.
I felt led to share with President Arafat the verses that always govern me when I go into Ramallah: for example, when you are before governors and kings ‘do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you’ (Matt.10:18-20). I told him I believe God gives me the words I say to him. I have always sensed the unusual leadership of the Holy Spirit every time I am with President Arafat. On at least two occasions – when I presented the Gospel very strongly to him – I felt I had as much anointing as in any pulpit. But each time afterwards I also feared I would never be invited back. But he has invited me back three times – even to have lunch with him. We had over an hour with him on this occasion. I read Psalm 91:14-16, asked him permission to anoint him with oil and pray for him.
We were not able to have lunch this time however; all the PLO were fasting in deference to certain men in prison who had gone on a hunger strike. They apologized profusely to us that they could not serve us lunch. Dr. Saeb Erekat, the brilliant and respected Palestinian statesman, who was at my side as I spoke with President Arafat (translating if needed), invited us instead to Jericho where he arranged for a delicious Arabic meal to be set before us. It was fantastic. We were particularly delighted to have well over an hour with Dr. Erekat. Dr. Erekat is highly regarded in the West but also by the Israelis. When the lunch was over we were photographed with him in front of the Catholic school in which he was educated (from age 3 to 12) – then we were photographed together in front of a Sycamore tree that is known to be 2000 years old, just possibly the very tree Zacchaeus climbed!
The Chief Rabbi of Israel
During our time in Jerusalem Canon White introduced us to a number of religious leaders, among them the Greek Orthodox Patriarch in the Old City. We then met the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch in the Old City of Jerusalem and had lunch with him and some of the monks there. This took place in what is actually the oldest known church in the world. Later in the day we had coffee and refreshments with the Bishop of the Coptic Church (Egyptian) in the Old City. We also spent time with the Rev and Mrs. Tony Higdon, old friends of mine, the vicar of Christ Church (Anglican) in the Old City. We were privileged to see holy sites seldom if ever seen by tourists.
It was an honour once again to meet the Chief Rabbi of Israel. We had lunch with him back in March when Lord and Lady Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, were with us. He remembered me and greeted us kindly. We had a good dialogue with him. Dr. Youssef said to him, ‘We pray for the peace of Jerusalem . . . for after all we worship your Messiah . . . and we pray for His peace to reign in this land.’
At that meeting was Rabbi David Rosen, the Jerusalem based International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee. I was thrilled that he not only remembered me but said, ‘Hi, R T’ without being re-introduced when we walked in. When we were with Lord and Lady Carey back in March, Rabbi Rosen treated us to a Shabbat dinner in the Mount Zion Hotel. On that Friday evening Rabbi Rosen and his wife and two daughters went through the ancient liturgy for us. It was most moving and brought us to tears. I did not dream that we were in the embryonic phase of what appears to be a significant relationship.
What happened was this. When Rabbi Rosen had spoken warmly about Pharisees at this Shabbat dinner, I was surprised. To make sure I had not misunderstood him, I asked, ‘Am I to believe that you see yourself as a modern Pharisee and are not ashamed of it?’ He answered that was absolutely the case! I explained to him that nearly all of what Christians know about Pharisees is not very complimentary! He knew this. I told him that I was in the process of writing a book and intended to devote one or two chapters to Pharisees. A few days later he sent me some information on Pharisees. He hoped I would make a distinction between those Pharisees Jesus is recorded as addressing as opposed to most Pharisees – then and now.
Therefore when we met in Jerusalem recently we agreed to spend more time together. He came early for breakfast the next day. I had just completed my latest book (to be published shortly in England) called Out of Your Comfort Zone – Is Your God too Nice? I told him I had referred to him but not by name lest I embarrass him. He wanted to see what I have written. As we discussed this I came up with an idea. What if we did a book together? We would begin by his criticizing my own interpretation of Pharisees and then I would answer him. He replied, ‘Let’s do it.’ We have since been in dialogue by email and it now appears certain he and I will do a book together. He also gave me permission to mention him by name.
I want to thank God and also Canon Andrew White for introducing me to important people in the Middle East. Without him I would never have had access to these strategic people. Please pray for him – for his health, wisdom and safety. And pray the same for me as doors continue to be open to me in that troubled spot on our planet.