The massacre of the innocents in Manchester last week was a shocking reversal of scenes I witnessed in the city two years ago which was a perfect picture of reconciliation and peace.
The twisted ideology of Islamist suicide bomber Salman Abedi was a complete contrast to the loving arms I saw reaching out to one another at the event I headlined ‘Middle East peace in Manchester’.
Delegates from all over the Arab world had come together for a unique conference. And as Iran continued its aggressive stance against Israel, threatening to wipe the Jewish state off the map, Iranian refugees and asylum seekers now living in Britain embraced their Jewish ‘brothers’, some of whom had travelled from Jerusalem to meet with them. Also present was a sizeable contingent of Egyptians along with representatives from Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria.
As part of the great untold story of the Middle East, the three-day conference was hosted by the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish people (CMJ). Although working mainly among Jews since its founding in 1809, CMJ has also consistently been reaching out to Arabs over the years and has held several At the Crossroads conferences at their Jerusalem headquarters to enable Jew and Gentile to express their oneness in Christ and work together to spread the gospel on the basis of a prophecy from Isaiah (chapter 19) of a “highway” of peace and reconciliation from Egypt to Assyria (which includes much of the modern-day Arab world) via Israel.
For the second of what is now a bi-annual event, in 2014, a number of UK-based Iranians, as well as a group of Egyptians, were turned back at the border and thus missed out on a chance to meet up with other Muslim-background believers from the Middle East. And so UK at the Crossroads was arranged to encourage and inspire those who would struggle – mainly due to visa issues – to enter Israel.
A Messianic rabbi from Jerusalem was delighted that so many Iranians had turned up for the conference – they have established thriving churches throughout England – and implored them to join him in praying for barriers to be broken between their two countries. And before he had finished speaking, they came forward to pray for him, and for Israel!
Sessions were interspersed with times of worship in Arabic, Farsi (the language spoken in Iran), Hebrew and English creating a beautiful atmosphere of shared love and identity. Communication may have been a challenge at times, but you only had to look in each other’s eyes to know you were one in Christ who, in the words of St Paul, destroys the dividing wall of hostility, creating "one new man" out of the two, thus making peace and reconciling both Jew and Gentile to God through the cross. (Ephesians 2.14-16)
It is through Jesus' substitutionary death for sinners that these men and women have been brought together. Hatred has been replaced by love, and war exchanged for peace. And this peace is accessible to all.
So why are we living in such fear and danger with threats of terror stalking our nation, and the Western world in general, as well as the Middle East which has experienced conflict for so long?
The short and simple answer has formed the basis of much literature over the centuries, built around the ancient plot of good versus evil. But it is not make-believe; there is a real spiritual battle going on between God and the devil – and we ignore it at our peril.
Fortunately our forbears knew that civilization was the outcome of love and respect for neighbour encapsulated by the Ten Commandments handed down from God himself! But we have jettisoned these principles in favour of moral relativism, denying the reality of an ultimate authority to which we will all have to give account. (2 Corinthians 5.10)
In adopting secularism and humanism, we are saying we want nothing to do with God. So it is hardly surprising that we have lost the protective cover he has long provided as we fall prey to violence and defeat. If we had been this weak when threatened by Nazi invasion during World War II, we would have been a much easier target. But our leaders encouraged us to pray, and we prevailed. Tragically, it now seems that evil is winning the day. We need to repent – that is, change our minds about God and ask his forgiveness.
It is salutary to read the response of a leading 19th century Christian to a terrible disaster at Great Yarmouth in May 1845 when 75 people drowned after a bridge collapsed at a circus event. Rev J C Ryle (later Bishop of Liverpool) wrote and distributed a tract focusing, not on the disaster itself, but on challenging readers about their souls. “Where would your soul be now, if you had been among the 75 who were drowned?” he asked. His chief concern was that the people of his day should be ready at all times to meet their Maker. "I warn you – it is a fearful thing to die unprepared to meet God."
Jesus himself responded in similar fashion to a disaster of his time involving the death of 18 people when the tower in Siloam fell on them, asking: “Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13.4f)
The 22 adults and children who lost their lives in the Manchester atrocity were the innocent victims of a mass murderer. It was terribly tragic, but it’s also a wake-up call for us to reckon with God. In the words of J C Ryle, “Are you living for him? Are you are true Christian? Have you really repented of your sins and turned from them?”
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem, available from olivepresspublisher.com