SPRING HILL — Pastor and Mrs. Ray Rouse were waiting for a flight in a Clearwater airport last spring when they overheard a young man talking on his cell phone.
"It was obvious he didn't want to lose connection, so he was talking loudly and walking around near us," said the pastor of Spring Hill Baptist Church. "He was talking about how the church was doing in Jerusalem and the persecution it was suffering there. So, I was intrigued."
On the other end of the phone was a representative from Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that gives aid to Christians suffering persecution throughout the world.
The young man was Stephen Khoury, 32, from Holy Land Mission — a ministry started by his parents about 30 years ago in Bethlehem.
Rouse had visited Christian holy sites in Israel in 1977 and 1995. He wanted to hear more from this compassionate-sounding man. When the phone conversation ended, he introduced himself.
"He told me he is a second generation pastor," Rouse said. "He began to tell me that because of persecution they could no longer meet (where they had been meeting). He's an evangelical pastor, very dynamic with a clear testimony. I was very impressed."
Rouse learned that Khoury usually comes to the United States twice a year to present his ministry and that he would return in the fall. Rouse wanted his congregation to hear what this dynamic young pastor had to say. A week later, the two had set a date.
"We always hear the Jewish perspective about the Holy Land," Rouse said. "I want them to hear from a Christian Arab and find out about his church. And I'm curious what the rapport is between" Christians of all ethnic backgrounds.
Sunday, Khoury, who is speaking in about five states this trip and visiting relatives in Florida, will tell the congregation in Spring Hill about his ministry at the 10:50 a.m. and 6 p.m. services.
Khoury describes himself as an Arab-Israeli-Christian-Palestinian, a rare combination that has allowed him to minister the Christian Gospel to both Jews and Palestinians. He was born in Jerusalem, lives in Palestinian territories and is an ethnic Arab. He was reared in a Christian home.
"Our ministry is unique and my heart's desire is to share the significance and impact that it has in the Arab-Palestinian territory and in the Arab-Israeli territory in Israel," he said.
That sometimes causes difficulties.
"You are always on the bad side of somebody," he said, noting that he must pass through an Israeli checkpoint almost daily. "To the Palestinian side I've accepted Israeli acknowledgement, and then to some Israelis, I've acknowledged the Palestinian people, so to a specific group of people, I'm a traitor. It's never easy to take a stand for justice and for the cause of others."
The vision for Holy Land Mission was summed up by Khoury while on an appearance on Fox News in August.
"Our vision needs to stand," he said, "Loving Israel, loving Jewish people, loving Arab people, sharing the message of Jesus Christ's love and forgiveness and acceptance and tolerance."
The mission has six ministries, including two in Jerusalem and two in Bethlehem.
"Between active people in church services and home services, we run over 1,200 people," Khoury said about the ministry that began with 56 people in 1978. There are about 11 staff members, including Khoury's father, Naim Khoury. Khoury's wife, Shari, who comes from Florida, serves along with her husband. The couple have two small children.
The ministry endured during two intifadas, in 1987 to 1993 and in 2000 to 2005.
"It's continued stand through difficult times proves we serve a God of miracles," the pastor said.
While there has been persecution, including having churches firebombed and people being shot at and even martyred over the years, Holy Land Missions' records show that there have been over 10,000 professions of faith.
"Our hearts' desire is to see more and more people come to know Jesus Christ as personal savior," Khoury said. "Our one message is that Jesus Christ is the hope for the Middle East."
A new branch of the ministry was begun recently in the West Bank.
"[It] is a hot bed for terrorist cell training programs," Khoury explained in an online video about this admittedly dangerous ministry. "We've seen a great spiritual hunger in the hearts of the people there. Those who were terrorists and extremists are reaching out … to learn more about this person we call Jesus."
Khoury, who attended Bible College in Springfield, Mo., and has a degree in pastoral ministry and bible, has published several books and currently writes religious articles for Al-Quds, an Arabic newspaper.
Rouse is excited about having Khoury speak at Spring Hill Baptist.
"This is a very sharp, well-spoken, knowledgeable young man who loves the same Lord and loves the same Christ and preaches the same Gospel that I do," he said. "We're honored to have him at our church. I was glad I was there at the right time to meet him."
Khoury hopes many people will come to hear him speak and sign up to become prayer partners of the ministry. He also hopes many people will decide to visit him in Israel and to do mission work with the ministries there.
"My heart's desire is for Christians in America to know that there are Arab-Palestinian Christians that are peaceful, that are still holding strong to the values (to which) our Lord and Savior aspires, and that we love Israel," the Arab pastor said. "We love our neighbors. We love the Jewish people, contrary to what the world teaches and expects us to be."