Philip Earl Steele – Michaela Zahorska, Miša, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you for this opportunity. Protestantism in Czech lands goes back over 600 years, to the movement launched by Jan Hus’ ministry. But what about that much younger movement from within Protestantism – namely, Evangelicalism? When we refer to Evangelical Christians we of course have in mind Baptists and Pentecostals and similar such Christian denominations. How would you describe their presence and public profile today in Czechia?
Michaela Zahorska – The Czech Republic is one of the most atheist countries in Europe. The most recent census in 2011 showed that there are slightly more than two million believers, or about one-fifth of the population. In 1918, when the population of the Czech lands also numbered roughly ten million, over nine million were believers. So, a marked decline over the past century.
About 40 churches and religious societies are now registered in the country. The largest is the Roman Catholic Church, to which 1.1 million people belonged in 2011. The Czech Brethren Evangelical Church, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, and the Orthodox Church follow at a distance, with the number of their believers in the hundreds of thousands. Several thousand Czechs belong to evangelical churches. The Apostolic Church, of which I am a member, has about 500 people.
In the days of the communist regime, Christians were persecuted. This discouraged many from going to church, let alone becoming active in them. For this reason, children were seldom brought up in the faith, and God was rather not talked about at home – otherwise children might have inadvertently disclosed religious beliefs, and that could have had a negative impact on their future. And yet after the revolution of 1989, when there was no longer any threat of persecution, the situation did not improve. The new generation knew nothing about God. But faith in Him had been nurtured in small enclaves by strongly believing individuals who, at the cost of imprisonment, maintained their religious commitments, gathered groups of worshipers at homes, and conducted evangelism and other missionary activities. Many of them spent years in prison, some even died there.
P.E.S. – Please tell us about your own church in Brno – and why modern Israel is of such importance to your church.
M.Z. – Thanks to some of those strongly believing people I mentioned, I found my own church. For that, I am grateful to them and to God. A little later, evangelists from other countries came. Believers from Sweden founded a church in my city of Brno, one they called the Word of Life. They also opened a Bible school. During my studies there, I began to understand that the Bible is a Jewish book and that Jews are God’s chosen people. Over time, I came to feel called to serve that people.
I formed a prayer group. Our task was in fact not only to pray, but also to share with other churches the clear message about the Jewish roots of our faith. For instance, we went on a mission trip to Bulgaria and visited several churches where we met other believers who had the Jewish people at heart. The following year, together with pastors from Bulgaria, we organized a prayer seminar on the salvation of Israel. It was a very blessed time for all, and our joint prayers opened the gates to other church denominations. Together with the pastor of the Apostolic Church in Slovakia, we established regular conferences for discussing the importance of co-operation between Christians and Jews, for examining the Jewish roots of our faith, and for finding ways to help not only through prayer. These conferences were attended by pastors from all over the world, including from Israel. It was then that we connected with believers in Poland, where our conferences were continued.
In time, a path to Ukraine opened up for us. The Chevra organization was founded, which meaningfully takes care of needy people of Jewish origin in Ukraine, regardless of whether they are believers or not. They are helped by food parcels, medical care, prayer, etc. Their terrible living conditions not only shocked us, but often made us cry. Anyone who has not seen it with their own eyes cannot imagine it. Apartments without heating, without a bathroom and toilet, sick people who have no medicines. Thanks to co-operation with people from Poland, I made several friends in Ukraine and found a place in the family of a Messianic rabbi from Krivoy Rog. He was invited several times by my church to the Czech Republic to teach us and inform us about the situation of his brethren. Several times I went to him by train alone on overnight trips. On the train people were assigned to bunk beds, together in one carriage. I loved those trains very much because of the opportunity to talk to people along the way and learn their incredible life stories.
For the last two years, because of covid, the All Nations Convocation in Jerusalem, organized by Tom and Kate Hess, has taken place only online. At one of the earlier convocations, I met the pastor of the Apostolic Church in Prague and began to work with that church. I set out to pass on love for the Jewish people, basic information about Judaism, etc. Eventually, I became a member. Today this church regularly prays for the salvation of the people of Israel and supports me in leading a prayer team in Brno.
P.E.S. – I know from our previous contacts that you’ve spent a lot of time in Israel. What kind of experiences there have meant the most to you?
M.Z. – I fell in love with Jerusalem by visiting the city regularly, often to accompany Jews who had never been there before. I’ve attended various Messianic churches in Jerusalem. I’ve also volunteered several times in the Israeli army, in the well-known Sar-El program. My encounter with the Messianic church in Maale Adumim, just east of Jerusalem, was very interesting. It was there I met the Minister of Health and a major in the Israeli army.
I also stayed for 3 months in Arad. This city lies in the desert and most of its streets are dead-ends. Beyond them is only the Negev desert or a view to the Dead Sea or Jordan. During that time, I served in the Teen Challenge organization, which attends to young mothers with children who were in trouble for various reasons. It was a very valuable experience. I often prayed all night to protect a young mother named Grace and her little daughter, who screamed in terror all night long. This organization was run by the Czech Republic and the house in which the women were cared for was run by an American woman. I don’t know much English, so I often relied on the Holy Spirit as my translator.
Because I was there during the high Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, I attended the nearest Orthodox synagogue on the edge of the desert, and I was received there with kindness. The singing filled the synagogue with God’s presence. This was especially the case during Yom Kippur, when I went to the synagogue at night and then in the morning had to avoid wolves on the outskirts of Arad looking for something to eat. I also went to the local Messianic church that gathered at the tourist center in Tel Arad, because it was constantly exposed to attacks by the ultra-Orthodox. There I met a nice Russian Jew who is my friend to this day. We visit as much as we can.
P.E.S. – How would you characterize Czech-Israeli relations today? And what sort of lobbying efforts does your church, together with others, make on behalf of deepening them?
M.Z. – Over the past years, many organizations have emerged in Czechia that seek to pass on the love of Israel, and to teach the roots of our faith and the need for prayers for the chosen people. These include Operation Esther, the ICEJ (the International Christian Embassy, Jerusalem), the CAFIA (the Czech Association of Friends of Israel), Chevra, TJC2 (Toward Jerusalem Council II), and various prayer and artistic groups throughout the country. All these groups are in contact with each other and regularly co-operate. They prayerfully support each other, promote their various efforts via media, and raise the necessary funds. They organize joint public gatherings in support of the state of Israel, celebrations of Jewish holidays, conferences. It’s a wonderful interdenominational collaboration.
Lately, however, the pandemic has made it impossible to meet face-to-face. But thanks to the media, the ranks of Israeli sympathizers have grown. The Czech Association of Friends of Israel is led by Karel Sedláček. Thanks to him, the Allies of Israel caucus was established in the Czech Parliament, and Karel Sedláček is its executive vice-chairman and external director. The Allies of Israel caucus co-operates with members of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus (KCAC). “Faith-based diplomacy is the most powerful weapon we have in the arsenal of Israeli international advocacy,” says the KCAC’s director, Josh Reinstein. Today the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus works with nearly 50 allied caucuses in governments around the world through the coordination efforts of the Israel Allies Foundation. And ever more countries are being added. Another manifestation of God’s power was the establishment of the Czech House of Prayer in Jerusalem, which has been operating there for 8 years now. It is currently facing existential problems due to covid, but thanks to prayer support and practical co-operation, we’ll all be able to change that.
P.E.S. – The pandemic is – hopefully – nearing its end. And so international travel may be resuming soon. What is the scale of Israeli tourism to Czechia, and vice-versa? And does your church conduct outreach to Israeli tourists?
M.Z. – Because of covid, traveling to Israel is not easy at the moment, and so I pray this will soon change. After all, many of us would like to travel not only to our friends in Israel, but especially to the Czech House of Prayer. We also need to visit the messianic churches we have befriended and establish further co-operation with them. The situation is slightly better for Israeli citizens. For now, they can come to us using the covid passport. I think there is a lot of interest in Israel in traveling to the Czech Republic. Israelis feel safe here and do not complain about antisemitism. They come for various reasons. Some study at university here, others are just tourists, some do business here. Students say it’s easier to get into college here than in Israel. Many Israelis find a life partner here and stay. And that makes it all the easier to celebrate the generations-long Czech-Israeli marriage.
Philip Earl Steele
Historian, editor, former lecturer at the University of Warsaw. Author of the book The Conversion and Baptism of Mieszko I and many papers, especially ones on religious studies, published in Poland, Israel, the Czech Republic, the US and the UK. His Polish-language book entitled Israel and Evangelical Christians: “A Match Made in Heaven” will be published soon.