Christian Leaders Respond to Yasser Arafat's Death

The death of Yasser Arafat prompted mixed reactions from the Christian community – some commended the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader for his efforts for peace while others called him a terrorist whose ultimate goal was to destroy the nation of Israel. While on different rungs of the spectrum, Christian leaders generally agreed that the PLO has a long road to walk before securing peace and receiving recognition as a sovereign state, as desired by its late president.

Arafat, who died on Wednesday evening at a Paris hospital, was revered by his own people but despised by many outside the Palestinian circle. He recived the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the creation of a peace treaty that formally recognized Israel’s right to exist while granting Palestinians self-governance in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the peace accord quickly deteriorated, in many parts due to the constant attacks on Israel by Fatah – a terrorist group spawned by Arafat decades earlier.

On a Nov. 11 article, the Baptist Press – the media outlet of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention – explained Arafat as the PLO “leader who failed to destroy the state of Israel, and later failed to make peace with it.”

“Yasser Arafat was a terrorist. There is no justification in our world for terrorists whether Moslem, Jewish, Christian or Baptist,” Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said in a statement to Baptist Press.

Patterson padded his statement with his hope that Arafat “in his waning moments of his life, remembered – and asked Jesus to be remembered in His Kingdom.”

“He was also a precious soul for whom Christ died,” Patterson said in his statement.

“When I shared the message of Jesus with him in Baghdad in the 1980s, I know he understood clearly but made no positive response to the Gospel. At least four or five other believers spoke to him of Jesus.

“I can only pray that, like the terrorist on the cross next to Jesus, Mr. Arafat, in his waning moments of life, remembered -- and asked Jesus to be remembered in His Kingdom,” Patterson said. “Human probability does not hold out much hope, but would it not be delightful to get to heaven and find that the love and grace of Christ was still saving terrorists in 2004?”

Brother Andrew, founder of Open Doors – an international persecution watchdog group, expressed similar sentiments about Arafat, saying he was “someone who badly needed Jesus.”

"I had the opportunity to meet with Arafat many times and bring the Gospel to him and tell him of Jesus' love….just like I have done for others in many countries for almost 50 years. The Bible says to pray for those in high places…they have such a huge responsibility. I had been praying for him for many years that he might be saved,” said Brother Andrew.

Meanwhile, World Council of Churches released a statement honoring Arafat’s “commitment to … the Palestinian society, its affairs and its future.”

In contrast to Patterson’s description of Arafat as a terrorist, the WCC said Arafat encouraged “mutual respect among diverse peoples.”

“President Arafat often made sure to mention the church as well as the mosque as core institutions of Palestinian national life. True to the customs of mutual respect among his diverse people, he celebrated Christmas with the churches of Bethlehem as circumstances permitted,” the statement, penned by Peter Weiderud, Director of the World Council of Churches’ Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, read.

“President Arafat will be remembered for bringing the Palestinian people together and for his unique and tenacious contribution to the cause of establishing their national home,” the letter added.

The letter concluded however, with the recognition that Arafat’s goal to establish a sovereign Palestinian state was still at a distance and that the Palestinian people must continue to travel together for that day.

“In solidarity with the Palestinian people, the World Council of Churches will continue to work for human rights, sustainable livelihoods, medical care and basic freedoms, in the days and years that lie ahead and until there is peace,” the statement read.

Bishop Mark S. Hanson, president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation(LWF), acknowledged the "radically different and often contradictory ways" Arafat would be viewed.

"For many, he was the personification of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and independence, a freedom-fighter, an heroic leader, a father figure. For others he was an implacable foe, an obstacle to peace. For Palestinian Christians, he was a strong supporter of their religious rights and freedoms, and always attentive to their place and their importance in the Holy Land," said Hanson in a joint statment with the LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko.

The two then expressed hope for a more peaceful Middle East and called on the PLO and Israeli leadership to strive for change.

"We pray that Israelis and Palestinians will work together for peace. We call on the Palestinian leadership and the Government of Israel to grasp the opportunity for change and for a return to dialogue," the statement read.

"We pray that God will loosen hatred’s grip on human hearts, and that God’s peace will descend on the land of Christ’s birth.