At German railway stations last autumn, cheering crowds welcomed trainloads of refugees after its government opened the doors to hundreds of thousands of migrants who had become stranded in Eastern Europe. The public mood may have shifted since then, but one German pastor who won’t be withdrawing his support is Revd Hanna Yeshou.
Today, Hanna Yeshou pastors the Evangelical Arab Church in Stuttgart, but 35 years ago he left his home country of Lebanon when it was embroiled in a long and bitter civil war.
As a pastor of an Arabic Church in Germany, Yeshou receives many appeals for help from immigrants and refugees arriving in Germany. He told Forbidden host Imed Dabbour how he has often abandoned a sermon minutes before preaching after hearing that a member of the church has lost a whole family of relatives attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
In addition to the trauma of warfare and perilous journeys, Yeshou sees another form of distress. He said growing numbers of refugees are shocked by their experience of Europe after they had imagined life in the West would be the answer to all their troubles. “It is a phase where a person’s problems turn from facing hunger, thirst and homelessness to a new struggle of experiencing a different society, a different language and a different culture,” he said.
One risk is that they retreat into their community and old sectarian divisions. “I beg our Arabic-speaking brothers who are coming into Europe to recognise this and be ready to meet those who receive them, knowing they don’t have bad intentions,” he said. “Don’t bring the problems of the East to the West but begin a new life.”
Losing his sight
When Pastor Yeshou speaks about challenges, he does so with the wisdom of experience. One of the biggest challenges in his own life was losing his sight – partially at the age of three to typhoid, and completely as an adult in 1985.
Despite the lingering questions about his disability, Yeshou’s blindness never prevented him from achieving God’s plans for his life.
He left Lebanon for Germany in 1981 after graduating in History of Islamic Thought and Political Science at the American University in Beirut. Horrified by the sectarian strife in his country and frustrated by attitudes to his disability there, he hoped eventually to enter politics.
Faith is to know that we don’t write the stories of our lives but the mighty and holy hand of God writes it from beginning to end.”
But the opportunity to work came as an assistant editor on a revision of the Van Dyke Bible, the most popular Arabic translation. After Bible translation work, Yeshou studied Theology and completed a PhD. Meanwhile, he had become pastor of an Arabic church and had met his German wife, Haidy. Together they had three girls and two boys. Dreams of a political career were put aside for a different kind of service.
“Faith is to know that we don’t write the stories of our lives but the mighty and holy hand of God writes it from beginning to end,” Yeshou told Dabbour. “Everything He wrote in my life and wants to write is great.”
Participation and peace-making
Despite living for three decades in Germany, Yeshou remains deeply connected to the Middle East and laments its continuing sectarian strife and the marginalisation and emigration of so many of its Christians.
“Christians are at the roots of the Arab society and culture. We are an inseparable part of this setting but we have failed to fulfil our role,” Yeshou says.
According to him, many Christians have chosen isolation from society rather than participation, keeping God’s love to themselves rather than showing it towards the other. “We live with each other but we don’t share the truth,” he adds.
Yeshou says that peace will only be achieved if both Christian and Muslim leaders work at it. Christians have always been a bridge between the East and West politically and in other fields like the Oslo agreement. He gives the example of Christian figures who have had leadership roles in international peace agreements such as the late Egyptian, Boutros Ghaly, United Nations Secretary of State.
On the other hand, Yeshou stressed that Muslims must address the fear that Christians in the East are feeling and assure them that they are an integral part of society. Muslims must create a compassionate environment for Christians to make them feel they are brothers, not enemies. He cited how the number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from 1.5 million in 1981 to around 200,000 today.
“We are all human, all made in God’s image, so we can find the good things in this person who is also made in God’s image despite our different backgrounds. We must consider human dignity. We must not ignore or break it in others,” Yeshou said.
Yeshou encourages tolerance as the antidote to religious prejudice but expressed his concern at the trend in the West to dissolve tensions by ignoring a religion’s central beliefs. He said the trend focuses on Abraham as the figure common to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but in doing so it overlooks Moses, Jesus and Muhammad.
An immigrant himself, Yeshou feels for those who have left countries where they once had comfortable lives to settle in strange and unknown environments. But despite the pain of leaving his homeland and being unable to regain his vision, Yeshou’s faith in Christ is strong.
“What I love in Jesus Christ is that He became human like me and was tortured like me and was homeless and was a stranger among His people: ‘He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him’,” Yeshou says.
He adds that there is a tension on this earth between being believing Christians and ordinary human beings who face temptations in every situation just like Jesus did. “The question is, how do we deal with the trials when they come?” he says.
Revd Hanna Yeshou oversees Auslanderseelsorge, a counselling centre for Arabic viewers of SAT-7’s television programmes. This centre based in Germany is one of ten such centres for Arabic speaking viewers, the others being located in North Africa and the Middle East.
Reaching the hearts other programmes cannot reach
SAT-7’s Forbidden programme is changing attitudes among growing numbers of Arab and North African viewers, thanks to host Imed Dabbour’s ability to attract celebrity guests from both Christian and non-Christian backgrounds. The series is also now being repeated on a mainstream TV channel in Tunisia, reaching even more viewers. Read more about Forbidden