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A man without a country finds a home with Southern Baptists


Joe Westbury

Born in Nazareth and baptized in the Sea of Galilee, Fayiz Saknini has maintained a close relationship with Jesus since he was a small child attending First Baptist Church of Nazareth. Saknini is currently a missionary to Arabic-speaking people, Mid-Easterners and Africans in Georgia through the Georgia Baptist Convention.

Fayiz Saknini was born twice in Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. The first came physically in June 1928, the second one spiritually in October 1945.

As a small child Saknini attended First Baptist Church of Nazareth, started by Southern Baptist missionaries more than 100 years ago. SBC missionaries pastored the church until 1961 when Saknini’s brother, Fuad, became the pastor. The older Saknini is still pastor of the very prominent church in Nazareth.

Fayiz and Fuad attended a home Bible study where they accepted Christ and were baptized together in the Sea of Galilee. Fayiz declares, “My baptism was a turning point in my relationship with Christ. When the preacher quoted Romans 14:7-9, I realized that Jesus came not only to be my Savior, but my Lord. It was then that I claimed the words of John the Baptist as my life’s motto: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).


Witnessing in many ways

Saknini, employed by both the Georgia Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board, is a missionary to Arabic-speaking people, Mid-Easterners and Africans who live in Georgia. At 76 years of age he preaches 15 to 20 times a month, has a weekly radio broadcast – The Arabic Voice of the Gospel – on WGUN, edits The Living Hope – the only SBC Arabic magazine in the nation – and travels about 35,000 miles a year.

In July Saknini will begin a Bible Institute to train Arabic-speaking pastors. The Baptist Center will be the site of this new learning center and Saknini expects to begin with approximately 20 students.


A preacher and refugee

The Nazareth-born preacher lived in Israel until the war between the Jews and Arabs erupted in 1948. At that time he was working for a British Oil Company that decided to relocate him to Beirut, Lebanon.

Lebanon offered Saknini a measure of peace and safety, but in reality he was a man without a country, without a citizenship, and without a family. He was a Palestinian refugee in a strange country.

Saknini recalls, “But isn’t that the way God works. You must come to the point, like Moses, when you recognize that you are nothing so that God can be everything. That is when God can use you.”

The oil company moved Saknini again, this time to Tripoli in North Lebanon. Although the Christ-devoted Saknini had taught Sunday School in Nazareth as a teenager, he was now committed to sharing his faith at every opportunity in his new home. After work each day he would distribute thousands of gospel tracts. He also started several home Bible studies.

One of the Bible studies was in the home of the Joseph family. The father in this home was born in Kentucky. One of the daughters was named Emilia. Saknini had the privilege of leading this family to faith in Christ. The three sons became ministers of the Gospel. Emilia later served as the national WMU director for four years. Saknini says of Emilia, “I won her. I baptized her. And I married her.” On July 23 Fayiz and Emilia will celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary.

The prayers of Saknini in Tripoli resulted in the establishment of a church he would pastor for 11 years. The pastoral candidate said, “I was making 1,000 Lebanese pounds a month with the oil company and the church was only able to pay 150 a month to their pastor, but I was sensing God’s call upon my life.”


A leader in Middle East churches

In 1960 First Baptist Church in Beirut called Saknini to be their pastor, a position he would hold for 16 years.

While in Lebanon Saknini served as president of the Lebanese Baptist Convention for 12 years. As pastor of the churches in Tripoli and Beirut, he became a friend to the presidents of Lebanon and was called to come to the Presidential Palace to meet with the chief of state. He also was the representative from the Baptist community to the Lebanese and Syrian governments.


A family of refugees

But being a Baptist pastor in Lebanon did not come without a price. Saknini has always been a personal soul winner and when he got converts from the Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Greek Orthodox Church, he incurred their leaders’ indignation. Threats and persecution were not uncommon. On one occasion Saknini was beaten in front of his wife and children by a Greek Orthodox bishop who was carrying a gun.

A war broke out in Lebanon in 1975 and the Sakninis wanted to leave for the sake of their children’s safety. They left Beirut as terrorists were waiting at their door to occupy their home. The Muslims looked upon the Baptist pastor as a spy and as one who could not be trusted to foster their agenda.

Of necessity the Sakninis left all their belongings behind as they made an expeditious exit from Lebanon. It was then, when he had lost all, that he claimed God’s promise in Philippians 4:19: “But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

Their first stop was in Jordan where, contrary to custom, the Sakninis were permitted to go into Israel, where Fayiz was able to visit his mother and brothers for the first time in 27 years.


New opportunities in America

Months later the Sakninis came to the United States at the invitation of the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) to talk about reaching Arabs for Christ. Saknini also established L.O.V.E (Lebanese Overseas Village of Evangelism, Inc), an organization designed to reach the neglected villages where there is no Christian witness or missionary to the Arabic community.

Upon arriving in the United States he got his family settled down in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York. It was a dwelling that was teeming with rats and infested with roaches. He turned down a lucrative job as an interpreter with the United Nations, because of his passionate desire to fulfill his call to ministry.

The newcomer to America said, “I’d rather die with starvation doing the will of God than to be wealthy without Him.”


A move south

Soon thereafter the Home Mission Board called to offer him a ministry position. The Sakninis moved to Atlanta in 1976. God has marvelously kept his promise of Philippians 4:19 by providing the means to acquire a home and furniture and all of life’s needs.

Saknini affirms, “I am grateful to Southern Baptists. God used our missionaries to introduce Christ to me. They helped me get an education and gave me the privilege to be a missionary.

“To me the greatest mission enterprise, not only in the world, but in all history, is the Cooperative Program. There is nothing like it in any other mission board or denomination. Through Southern Baptists the gospel is being preached in more than 170 countries. God has used Southern Baptists in many ways to touch millions of people around the world, including me.”