BETHLEHEM, West Bank It stings when people think he's a terrorist.
Esa* is a follower of the Messiah who was born in his hometown Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
"When I was in America, my wife and I visited different churches, Esa recounted. "I met a lady and she started to shake my hand." But when she found out Esa was Palestinian, she snatched her hand away before he could shake it, and she left. "It really hurt," he said.
"Christian" and "Palestinian" just don't go together sometimes for people, Esa said. "But we have Palestinians here who love Jesus. We pray for our brothers in Christ."
That includes those on the other side of the dividing wall that separates Bethlehem, where so many have yet to know Jesus as Savior, from nearby Jewish communities adrift in spiritual emptiness.
"God is at work in my heart," Esa said. "It's very hard when you grow up and someone hits you ... it is very hard to give them forgiveness. Growing up in this land, I saw blood the Arabs and the Jews were always killing each other, no peace, no love, nothing."
It is a reality he has seen up close and personal amid the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian tensions. When he was 10 years old, Israeli soldiers occupied his home, dictated when his family could leave the house and took his brother to jail after breaking three of his ribs, Esa said.
Then one turned to him and told him he was a terrorist.
"I could not understand what he was talking about I was 10 years old. And I'm crying and shaking and scared with five soldiers with guns coming into my home," he said.
It wasn't the last time he heard that accusation.
But years later after he'd become a believer, when he felt that hurt again in an American church, he said God began to work on his heart and the way he felt toward the Jews.
"I said, 'God, in the name of Jesus I give forgiveness to the Jewish people with all my heart and I don't need anything from them. I love them, and I believe you heal me and you work in my heart to love Jewish people,'" Esa said. "And I heard Him say, 'You have to make peace.'"
After that, in addition to his passion for reaching his own people in Bethlehem, his heart burned to reach out and love his Jewish neighbors across the way. Every Christmas and Easter he gets permission to cross into Jerusalem, and when he does, he goes straight to the Western Wall.
"I go there to meet Jewish people and build relationships with them," Esa said. "I want to be able to take our [ministry] teams to work with them, too, and for us to work alongside Jewish [Messianic believers]. For us to work as a group ... it's still my vision, and I never give up."