Lebanese with a Jewish heart

Arab Evangelical pastor in the Galilee has had an unusual journey into the ministry.

Joseph Haddad (photo credit: Nathan French)
Joseph Haddad
(photo credit: Nathan French)
Joseph Haddad, an Arab Evangelical pastor in the Galilee, has had an unusual journey into the ministry, a calling that has knitted him to his homeland of Israel.
Haddad was born in Haifa, the youngest of three brothers in a Lebanese Maronite (Catholic) family, though his parents took them to church only at Easter and Christmas.
Haddad’s father had moved to Israel in 1946 because jobs were scarce in Lebanon, especially for bakers. His father went to work for a Jewish baker in Haifa who loved him so much that when many Arabs fled during the 1948 War of Independence, he pleaded with his father to stay and promised to protect him.
“I grew up loving the Jews, not like other Arabs,” Haddad recently told The Christian Edition. “Because I am Lebanese, not Palestinian, I did not think as others thought – that the Jews took our land, abused and mistreated us. So I grew up loving the Jews and cooperating with them. Sometimes they call me the ‘Lebanese with a Jewish heart!’”
But by his own admission, Haddad was a very enraged teenager, always cursing and hitting his parents. “I tried to stop but could not and was ashamed of myself for years. There was an evil force driving me. Many times when I woke up at night, I would find my mother sitting up in bed praying to God to change me,” said Haddad.
In hopes of stopping his abusive behavior, Haddad’s parents brought him a wife from Lebanon when the “Good Fence” crossing was still open. But it only got worse. “Instead of abusing two people, now I had three,” he said.
But everything changed, he said, when he had an encounter with Jesus in February of 1984.
About six months into their marriage, Haddad was visiting one of his brothers when he met three bornagain believers who were sharing with his family. “I had such a heart of stone, but for the first time in 15 years I found myself crying and under conviction. This was a message of hope to me,” he said.
One of the three men called him “Brother” and asked if he wanted to pray. “I said I don’t know how to pray but only curse. But I found myself crying and asking for forgiveness. I told the Lord I deserved death and declared I was a sinner and did not know even what to pray. Instantly, I felt an evil power leave me, and the Holy Spirit came into my life. Then everything looked so bright to me,” he recounted.
“My wife Ibtissam looked beautiful to me, and I felt so humbled and convicted that I ran to her and hugged her and asked her to forgive me. And I ran back home and washed my parents’ feet. They couldn’t believe it and thought I was acting because the change in my life was so drastic. There was a joy in the house like when the prodigal son came home. It took them some time, but when they saw my conversion was real, they both came to faith,” explained Haddad.
“My father was actually mad at Jesus for waiting so long to reveal himself, and he cried like a little boy as I read to him from the Bible,” said Haddad. They started a Bible study at his parents’ home, and the neighbors who knew the abusive Haddad boy before bore witness to his dramatic change. “They said something had happened to this house and that God has visited this house. The transition was that apparent!” Haddad and his wife began attending Bible school in Haifa, and he was ordained as a pastor after graduation.
He then worked for six years with Pastor David Davis at the House of Victory, ministering to former alcoholics and drug addicts.
“This was my true Bible school, and the Lord really humbled me,” laughed Haddad. “God took away a lot of my bad characteristics and prepared me for the Lebanese ministry in 2000,” he said.
Before the sudden Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon took place on May 23, 2000, the IDF’s security zone along the border was heavily targeted by Hizbullah terrorists. The South Lebanese Army (SLA) was fighting alongside the IDF to protect Israel’s North from rocket and terror attacks.
“Those precious Lebanese were in alliance with Israel for 25 years and they paid a really high price. Most of them lost either a father, brother or son, and most have scars on their bodies,” Haddad recalled.
The south Lebanese Christians who had helped Israel were considered traitors by most of their countrymen, so around 7,000 fled to Israel overnight during the hasty withdrawal, leaving the door open for Hizbullah to take control of their villages.
“What makes all this story so impacting is that they had only four hours’ notice from the IDF to leave everything behind and escape to Israel. Many of the children came in their pajamas, and in a few hours they lost everything. They lost their homes, land, loved ones, vehicles. They came here to Israel and suddenly found themselves refugees with nothing.”
The next day, the Haddads and Pastor Davis distributed Arabic Bibles, diapers, powdered milk and children’s clothing to Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, close to the Lebanese border, where many of the refugees had fled. While Haddad’s wife played Arabic worship music on her keyboard, Pastor Davis preached on Isaiah 29:17-20 as Joseph Haddad translated.
Soon – and it will not be very long – the forests of Lebanon will become a fertile field, and the fertile field will yield bountiful crops. In that day the deaf will hear words read from a book, and the blind will see through the gloom and darkness. The humble will be filled with fresh joy from the Lord. The poor will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. The scoffer will be gone, the arrogant will disappear, and those who plot evil will be killed.
“This is a great promise! He is speaking about spiritual deafness. The people of Lebanon will be healed from their spiritual deafness and will be able to hear the words of hope,” Haddad intoned. “People now cannot see because of the oppression on them. I remember when Pastor Davis read these words, the refugees from Lebanon were crying, the Lebanese who had lost everything and came to Israel. The men were crying and did not know Lebanon was in the Bible.”
Haddad explained that his ministry to the Lebanese began from that first meeting with the SLA refugees. For about eight months Haddad’s ministry provided physical help to the refugees, and by then the Israeli government was offering rented homes. Around 250 families chose to live in Nahariya, about 10 minutes from the Lebanese border.
The name of the town means “river of God” in Hebrew.
In Nahariya, Haddad started a small group in a living room, and that eventually moved to the ground floor, but they soon had to move to a garden outside for more space. As winter approached, they prayed for a bigger place with a roof.
“We cried out to God and we prayed, ‘Lord, we need our own place! We want to worship you!’ And the Lord was faithful! He provided a beautiful place next to the promenade on the tourist area of Nahariya, on the main road where the marketplace is. We were there for four years. It was a wonderful time! This is where we started our church, River of God, in the same location where the first mayor once lived.”
When asked what is it like for a Lebanese living so close to the border to not be able to return, he said it is difficult for them because they are so close to their family and homeland but cannot go back due to Hizubllah.
“But those who come to our church know this is God’s will for them,” Haddad added. “This is a city of refuge and, according to Genesis 12:3, because those precious Lebanese had blessed Israel and the Jewish people for 25 years, God is blessing them in return. In due time, God will send them back to Lebanon like little sparks that can start a big fire of revival. This is how Isaiah 29 will be fulfilled.
“We do not take lightly this work with the Lebanese. I remember in Zechariah 4, it said, ‘Do not despise small beginnings.’ This is a small beginning. We are a small church. We are about 80 people with children, but I believe that God can use the little ones like Gideon’s army to send them back to Lebanon,” he said.
When asked what he thought were Hizbullah’s plans, Haddad that stressed Lebanon was never hostile toward Israel in biblical times. “What made Lebanon hostile toward Israel was radical Islam. This is a spirit of war, a spirit of bloodshed, a spirit of terrorism, a spirit of hatred. They hate the Jewish people.
“I believe that the [next] war is only a matter of time. Hizbullah is determined to harm Israel, but I believe God has brought the Jews back to Israel not to destroy them but to deliver them. He is going to protect Israel from Hizbullah! It’s not the IDF. It’s not America that is the superpower. God is going to protect Israel. He is watching over His word to perform it,” he exclaimed.
Asked if he has faced persecution for his support of Israel, Haddad described a run-in with members of the local Christian Arab community.
“One night we had a reporter from the largest Christian Web site in the Galilee come and take some pictures and put a report about us on their site. The moment a particular Arab pastor saw that I had the Israeli flag in the sanctuary, they started persecuting me. They said, ‘Why do you have the Israeli flag? You are an Arab, you should not have it.’ But I told them I live in Israel and am proud to be obedient to the state and have the Israeli flag in my church. I have no problem with it,” said Haddad.
Many Arab pastors teach Replacement Theology – a doctrine that holds that God has replaced Israel with the Church – explained Haddad. “I’d rather obey God and not man, so I face persecution from other Arab pastors, but I know I am on the right track. I know I am obeying God and He will bless me. We need to take a stand for the truth. No compromise!”
He described his River of God congregation as a “Ruth” church – a gentile church that loves the Jewish people, clings to the God of Israel and prays for the peace of Jerusalem.