01/24/2012 07:52 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2012

Seeking Salvation On Tel Aviv's 'Church Row' (PHOTOS)

While most of Israel slumbers on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, one neighborhood in Tel Aviv comes to life.

In Neve Shanan, Gospel music, soaring sermons and the chanting of believers of a distinct African flavor can be heard in the heart of the Jewish state's secular core.

Tel Aviv's Christian community appears to be centered on Levanda Street, where three four-story buildings house an eclectic mix of churches, mainly Pentecostal and Evangelical, hosting African migrants as well as Catholic and protestant foreign workers from East Asia. Many of the churches work on a sort of "musical pews" arrangement, with smaller congregations using the facilities of larger churches during their off hours. Since Sunday is a work day in Israel, the churches hold their main weekend services on Saturdays. (Read on after the slideshow for more about Tel Aviv's Church Row.)

Seeking Salvation On Tel Aviv's 'Church Row'

Long one of the seediest neighborhoods of the city, Neve Shaanan has over the past decade become the most polyglot and diverse part of Tel Aviv, with residents from dozens of countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Nowhere is this more noticeable than on the Neve Shaanan pedestrian mall, which hosts Asian food markets, Eritrean and Sudanese bars and social clubs, Internet cafes, African hair salons, and Romanian and Russian bars. The district teems with all types of hustlers, three-card monty players and drug addicts strolling its side streets next to the peepshows, brothels and street-walkers that operate in the open with seeming impunity.

Along with nearby south Tel Aviv neighborhoods Shapira and Hatikvah, Neve Shaanan has in recent years become home to the city's population of foreign workers and African migrants, estimated to be more than 10 percent of city's more than 400,000 residents.

According to a report issued in early January by the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, there were around 45,000 African "infiltrators" living in Israel as of November 2011. They first began arriving in large numbers in 2005, and have today reached the pace of around 3,000 per month. The migrants are mostly male and the majority come from the Orthodox Christian country of Eritrea. The migrants also include a large number of Darfurians and South Sudanese, followed by some from the Ivory Coast and elsewhere in Africa. The migrants make their way by foot, paying Beduin traffickers to smuggle them across the Egyptian border with Israel. According to testimony given by migrants in Israel, the traffickers often hold them in "torture camps" where they torture them in order to extort money from their relatives in Africa or Israel. There have also been reports of organ theft and systematic rape of female migrants by the Beduin traffickers.

As a signatory of the 1952 U.N. Convention on Refugees, Israel cannot simply deport the migrants back to their home countries, where many would face persecution. Instead, the migrants end up in southern Israel towns like Eilat and Arad and in ever larger numbers in south Tel Aviv.

In Neve Shaanan and other poor south Tel Aviv neighborhoods they find themselves the source of controversy and at times disdain from the native Israelis who see them as outside interlopers bringing down their housing prices and drinking and fighting in the streets late into the night.

On Jan. 9, the Israeli parliament passed the so-called "Infiltrators Law," which allows Israel to imprison for three years without trial those who enter the country illegally, even if the state has no intention or legal ability to deport them. The law is widely seen as an attempt to deter future African migrants from arriving in Israel, though Israeli NGOs say it will not deter those they say are fleeing persecution or genocide in their home countries, and will instead lead to legitimate asylum seekers facing jail time.

A short Ivorian who speaks English with a gravelly West African accent, Pastor Bonny Bafour and his partner, a Ghanain named John N'yarko, said they split off from the Assemblies of God church three months ago because they wanted to focus more on street ministry, an effort that not only would potentially save more souls, but also bring more worshippers to fill the collection box on Saturdays.

"If you go to Neve Shaanan you see a lot of people doing drugs, drinking, doing something that the nation [Israel] don't want. It makes the foreigners look bad. This is bad for us. They say these people from Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, they make problems," said Bafour, who does construction work as his day job.

Pastor George Gyasi-Baaye came to Israel from Ghana in 1988 and shortly thereafter set up the Redemption Power Ministries, one of the longest running African churches in Tel Aviv. At the first Saturday service after the New Year, the pastor stood in a brilliant white suit and gave a thundering speech in English about salvation and the New Year, as another congregant translated into the Ghanain language of "Twi."

Gyasi-Baaye said the church is "the family of the community, conflict resolution, practically everything. Most of [the congregants] are migrants and they don't have family here so they see the church as their home, as a sanctuary." He also explained the counter-intuitive situation wherein the influx of new Christian migrants from East Africa has in his words brought a drastic decrease in church attendance. He said higher police scrutiny brought on by the new arrivals has caused many people to stay home, and that undocumented worshippers are afraid to come to the church, which has been raided by immigration authorities at least twice.

Gyasi-Baaye and N'yarko, a 17-year-veteran in Israel, represent the old wave of African economic migrants who began arriving in the '90s, and mainly settled in south Tel Aviv, especially in Neve Shaanan, where they opened Pentecostal and Evangelical ministries. By 2000, there were around 40 such churches in South Tel Aviv. In 2002 Israel began mass deportations of African migrants, and by the middle of the decade, the community was a shell of its former self.

Galia Sabar, Chair of the African Studies department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, said that for the first wave of African migrants, the independent churches they set up were the very heart of their community.

"It wasn't just spiritual support or a place where you go to pray, it was a social gathering, an economic meeting point, it was used for political manifestation both inward and outward. ... It was really everything for them and was really an anchor an isle, a safe haven."

While the first wave West African migrants looked at the church as their anchor, according to Sabar, the second wave Africans who came mainly from the horn of Africa have sought community togetherness elsewhere.

Sabar said they have turned to the neighborhood bars, restaurants and social clubs set up by earlier East African arrivals and have filled their spiritual needs at pre-existing churches. They can also turn to the Israeli NGOs that have opened in recent years to help African migrants and asylum seekers, a network that was lacking when the first wave arrived in Israel.

Nonetheless, there are those like Pastor Jeremiah Dairo of the "Lift Up Your Head Church" who view their congregations as "a refuge, a place to help people start a new life," and potentially, a community anchor in their own right.

Dairo said he came to Israel from Nigeria in 2006, after receiving a call from God to found a church in the holy land. According to Dairo, the Pentecostal church sometimes provides a place for new arrivals to sleep, on the condition that they abstain from smoking, alcohol or fighting while staying at the church.

Dairo said the church also opens its doors to migrants who are dealing with homesickness or feelings of failure and despair in Israel.

"They expected that they come to Israel and everything would change and they come here and they have to start the battle again."

Dairo said the church's theme for 2012 is "Raising Shining Stars for Jesus," and that the message is mainly intended for the African youth who make some 75 percent of the congregation.

While he's soft-spoken in his office on a Friday evening, during his sermons he paces the stage shouting to his parishioners as he works up a sweat.

Like the other congregations, Dairo welcomes outsiders, but with one caveat: "It never starts on time, we run on Africa time here."