ISRAEL — Several days after the death of three schoolboys in Gaza, Stephen Johnson* still weeps. He isn’t the only one.
And he isn’t the only one praying the heartbreak of war casualties among Palestinians and Israelis ends soon.
More than 50 Jewish and Palestinian believers met together to pray for peace on July 13, a show of solidarity in the conflict that is rocking their region.
“We pray for all people caught up in the conflict, that the Church will be an instrument of peace and that hostilities would end,” said Johnson, a Southern Baptist representative in the West Bank.
The young boys, who were part a Christian-sponsored school in Gaza, are the faces of the conflict for Johnson and his wife, Rebecca.* They are examples of the high cost in human life resulting from the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the hardline Islamist terrorist organization controlling Gaza.
“We ask you to join our team in weeping with the parents and family of these three children,” Johnson said. “Pray with us for the safety of our students and teachers at the school, for all our friends in Gaza and also for all Israelis. May no more mothers have to cry over the loss of their children.”
The three children — Jehad and Wisam Shuheiber and their cousin Afnan — are already three too many, Johnson said.
Ben Martin,* a Southern Baptist representative in Israel emphasizes that this conflict is not between Jews and Palestinians, but between Israel and Hamas, a U.S.- and European Union-recognized terrorist organization.
“Terrorism comes because people give their hearts over to hate. They hate their enemy more than they love their own people,” Martin said. “My prayer is that people on both sides of the conflict would not fall into the trap of hate, which is a dark prison.”
Miriam Holman,* a Southern Baptist representative living among the Jewish population in Israel, agreed.
“My heart goes out to people on both sides of the conflict, and I pray that this operation will end soon and without any more loss of life,” she said.
The recent violence started with the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students in the West Bank on June 10 and the revenge killing of a Palestinian youth July 2.
Back-and-forth rocket attacks and airstrikes between Israel and Hamas then ensued, culminating in a major offensive against Hamas in Gaza on July 8.
A temporary cease-fire ended abruptly July 17 after Hamas fired rockets into Israel. The proceeding ground invasion of Gaza by Israel is the first major Israeli ground incursion into Gaza since 2009.
On July 19, rockets fired by Hamas militants killed a Bedouin Muslim man in Israel and wounded three others in his household, including two children. The tragedy highlights the blurred lines in the conflict.
The situation is unpredictable, but despite the violence, Southern Baptist representatives continue ministering where they are with a surprising calm.
“We are confident that this is where God wants us to be,” Johnson said. “Our team remains where it is to share His love with the hurting world around us.”
Johnson has recently gained approval for a food distribution program in Gaza through Baptist Global Response (BGR) once the hostilities end.
In Gaza, a Baptist church of about 50 people suffers along with the rest of the people with a lack of food, inability to move about freely, no electricity for large parts of the day and uncertainty of what is to come.
“Pray that our team and other local believers and partners can have opportunities to share our source of hope,” Johnson said.
Holman, who lives close to the conflict in Israel, has regularly retreated to her safe room when sirens go off but also reports busy markets and life as usual in between moments of chaos.
She said hundreds of missiles were being lobbed into Israel every day in Mid-July and moments of peace were rare but welcomed.
She recently relocated to a safer distance from the violence but is burdened for those who have no safe place to go.
“Thankfully there have been few deaths or serious injuries in my town as a result of the missiles or the riots, but the situation is very tense,” she said. “Pray that this situation will open up opportunities for me and other believers to share about the true Prince of Peace.”
Rebecca Johnson encourages prayer partners to pray for Israelis, Palestinians, Hamas, terrorists, the innocent and the guilty — everyone involved in the violence and bloodshed taking place in the Middle East.
“For God so loved the world — the ugly, me, you, Palestinians, Hamas, Israelis — so much that He gave His Son that we might have relationship with Him,” she said.
Nicole Lee is a writer for the International Mission Board based in Europe.