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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
It was May 2006. MK Yuri Shtern had just been diagnosed with cancer, but had not yet gone public with the news.
While chairing the monthly meeting of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus - which he had founded in 2004 - Shtern suddenly passed a note across the table to the prominent American Evangelical leader who was being hosted at the event.
"Pray for me... It is my secret," the scrap of paper revealing his illness read.
"It melted my heart," said Kay Arthur, whose husband is the CEO of the Tennessee-based Precept Ministries International. "This unnoticed moment embodied Yuri's wisdom and foresight. He realized the nation of Israel has no greater or more loyal friend than Christians who understand God's irrevocable covenant with Israel and their land - and he had the courage to forge that alliance."
The widely-acclaimed Israeli parliamentarian, Soviet aliya activist and ardent Zionist - who spearheaded Israel's burgeoning relations with evangelical Christian supporters around the world - died Tuesday, after a debilitating, six-month battle with his disease. He was 58.
Shtern was an unusual player on the bitterly divisive stage of Israeli politics: a hawkish lawmaker, respected by friends and foes alike.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid tribute to Shtern as a "man of culture and letters. with a deep awareness of Israel's heritage and of Jewish tradition [whose] uncompromising political views were alongside his extraordinary cultural and social sensitivity."
Knesset speaker Dalia Itzik, whose political views are 180 degrees to his left, called Shtern a "paragon" for Israeli parliamentarians, an epitome of the Zionist immigrant successfully absorbed in the country.
YURI SHTERN was born in Moscow on March 29, 1949.
An ardent Zionist who learned Hebrew clandestinely during the Soviet era, Shtern immigrated to Israel in 1981 with his wife and two young children .
An economist by profession with a Ph.D from Moscow University, Shtern was active in various aliya organizations, as well as a member of the Zionist Forum for Soviet Jewry.
Following his own aliya, he remained an active promoter of immigration.
"Yuri loved the Land of Israel without limits," said former minister Natan Sharansky. "There is no doubt that he devoted his life to aliya and to Israel."
Shtern was first elected to the Knesset in 1996, as a member of Sharansky's Yisrael B'Aliya Party. Three years later, he switched over to Israel Beiteinu, led by Sharansky rival Avigdor Lieberman, and rose to number two on the party's Knesset list last year.
His rich and fruitful parliamentary career included a two-year stint as deputy minister in the Prime Minister's Office, in addition to having been a member of and chaired several Knesset committees.
Despite the status afforded him as a legislator, Shtern lived in a modest flat in Jerusalem, where he occasionally could be seen riding the bus - much to the astonishment of fellow passengers. He was also known to hitchhike across the West Bank when paying weekend visits to his sister, a resident of Kiryat Arba.
In an unusual mix, his hawkish political views were coupled with a profound concern for the environment. Indeed, one of his last battles was against the controversial expansion of Jerusalem westward, which, following a major environmental campaign, has since been frozen.
He gained prominence among Christians three years ago when he founded the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus, an increasingly-influential cross-party parliamentary lobby which works with Christian supporters of Israel around the world.
"Christian support for the State of Israel has reached levels unimaginable 25 years ago, but has also become much more critical, now that old-time anti-Semitism is joining forces with Islamic anti-Semitism," he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post last year.
The establishment of the caucus - which may prove to be Shtern's longest-lasting legacy - catapulted him to near stardom in the predominantly supportive evangelical Christian world.
"In our hearts, he will always be remembered as a gentle, selfless champion of the historic deepening of Christian-Jewish relations in our time," said Rev. Malcolm Hedding, Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy, a Jerusalem-based evangelical organization. "Yuri possessed a rare combination of graciousness, honesty, intellect and foresight that uniquely qualified him to be a leading pioneer of this new era of warmer relations between Israel and her Christian admirers worldwide."
As part of his work with the Caucus, Shtern traveled the globe, meeting with thousands of parliamentarians and prominent religious leaders interested in his idea of promoting ties based on shared biblical Judeo-Christian values.
His efforts spurred the launching, last year, of a sister caucus in the United States House of Representatives, known as the "Congressional Israel Allies Caucus." Several other such caucuses in governments elsewhere are now being planned, including one scheduled to be launched next month in Canada.
BY THE time Shtern's cancer was properly diagnosed (months earlier, it had been misdiagnosed as sinusitis and antibiotics had been prescribed), it had spread throughout his body.
Shtern underwent multiple operations over the last six months, both in Israel and abroad. Despite his deteriorated physical state, he continued to attend the Knesset and even prepare new laws - including benefits for Holocaust survivors - until a few weeks ago, when he became too weak.
Early Tuesday, an emaciated Shtern - who had been drifting in and out of consciousness for a week - lost his last battle.
News of Shtern's untimely death, which spread like wildfire across the Christian-Zionist community, broke during a meeting in Washington between Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel, leaving participants grief-struck.