Posted by Tim on 25th February 2013
Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?
Two years on from the outbreak of the Arab Spring, it’s worth pausing to take stock of what has happened so far, particularly since recent the military conflict in Mali against Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the ongoing civil war in Syria have drawn attention to the region once again.
Readers will recall that early in 2011 a democratic uprising in Tunisia, largely facilitated by the use of social media in organising, communicating and publicising, triggered a number of popular uprisings in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region. Since then, not a single county in the region has been unaffected by some form of protest, and the ongoing conflicts continue to destabilise the entire region and threaten to spill over into west and central Africa, the Caucasus and central Asia. Several countries have experienced major unrest and the results have been mixed – certainly not the democratic success that liberals were hoping for! Here’s how they stack up:
Successful change of government: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen
Top down change in response to the uprising: Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia
Civil war: Libya, Mali, Syria
Authoritarian crackdown: Bahrain
The key questions for us at Syzygy are not so much about the politics but about the impact of these disturbances on a) Christian mission and b) the national church. It should be remembered that most of the countries in the NEMENA region were not particularly hospitable to Christians before the Arab Spring, and many of them had no significant Christian population. Overt Christian mission was not possible in any of these countries.
The breakdown of law and order in the Arab Spring uprisings caused many mission agencies to withdraw their teams from most countries in the region in 2011. The risks of becoming inadvertently caught up in the conflict, or of being specifically targeted by extremists were considered too great. In many of these countries the overseas mission workers have still not returned, or if they have, their actions are hampered by the need to take security seriously. This has an impact not only on their Christian witness, but on the vital humanitarian and development work they have been doing.
The prospects for the national church have been even worse. The possibility of Sharia law being introduced (in Egypt for example) is a major threat to their ability to meet together openly and have their minority rights protected. In the event of civil war the Christians are more vulnerable because often they are not able to rely on support from a wide family network (who may have ostracised them), or because they may be seen as covert allies of western democracies whose influence is opposed by Islamic extremists. In Syria, where the minority Alawite regime has in the past been reasonably tolerant of Christians because they too were a minority, the rebels can even see the Christians as the enemy, particularly as they have not taken sides in the war. There is nobody to protect the believers from extremists who want to lynch them and burn down their buildings.
Here are some recent headlines about what is still happening to the suffering church in the region:
- Church burned, Christians stoned by Egyptian villagers (17th February)
- Christians sentenced for (allegedly) proselytising in Algeria (13th February)
- Christians in Sudan face victimisation by the Government (12th February)
- Internally-displaced Christians in Mali face starvation (11th February)
- Iraqi Patriarch claims Arab Spring resulting in bloodshed (9th February)
- 200,000 Syrian Christians have been displaced by war (1st February)
Yet God continues to do amazing things throughout the region. There are reports of miraculous protection of Christians and church buildings. Many people are finding Christ through the internet, or satellite tv and radio broadcasts. We reported last year on ‘The Beautiful One’ who meets people in their dreams. Nevertheless, as we observed on this website in 2011, these are precarious times for the church throughout the NEMENA region.
- Pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters, that their faith will be strengthened and they will be comforted in their suffering.
- Pray that mission workers will feel assured of God’s protection, have wisdom in avoiding detection, and be able to get on with their ministries unencumbered.
- Pray that revival will break out as people commit their lives to ‘The Beautiful One’.
- Donate to Christian relief agencies providing humanitarian aid in the region.
Tags: Algeria, Arab Spring, Egypt, extremism, Iraq, local believers, Mali, social media, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia
Posted in Africa, Central Asia, For Your Information, Middle East, Suffering church | No Comments »
Posted by Tim on 19th November 2012
In 1991 when the USSR collapsed there was barely a hint of Islam in public life in the central Asian republics. That was due, of course, to the seventy years of communist rule in which all religion was unlawful, barring the recognition of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in many cases was led by a KGB agent posing as a priest.
In the first year following the collapse of the USSR, all five republics declared their independence. This fresh independence brought with it a new constitution, which declared the freedom of religion. Churches sprang up, reaching out both locally and to neighbouring countries.
By the mid 90’s there was a definite new presence of Islam. Mosques began to reopen. We began to hear rumours from local people that Iran was funding an underground Islamic movement throughout central Asia. Throughout the later 90’s there was growing evidence of the growth of Islam throughout the region. Islamic universities and seminaries were opened. Calls to prayer were heard over loud speakers five times a day and men clad in long robes bowed in the streets by the hundreds on their prayer mats. Those not participating were ridiculed and threatened. More and more women were veiled and dressed in long robes down to their ankles. Reports of abuse to women by their Islamic husbands became rampant.
Following 9/11 the United States launched an attack on Afghanistan and people from the north of the country began to flee across the borders into the central Asian republics. Most of the people were professing, if not practicing Muslims. Christians seized the opportunity to begin sharing Jesus with the newly arrived refugees. Hundreds of people came to know Jesus as a result.
The report of hundreds coming to know Jesus fuelled the hatred of Christians from the Islamic faction. Throughout the region, as people are known to be Christians, they have difficulty in doing business in their communities, shunned by family and friends, bullied in the work place. They are denied promotion at work or even fired from jobs. Their children are ridiculed by classmates and often beaten themselves en route to and from school
In the late 90’s there began to be reports of beatings and people being stoned for their Christian faith. By 2004 the reports were coming very nearly each month. By 2007 the reports were weekly. Today the reports are a daily occurrence. I still remember vividly the time I met with pastors who had fresh bruises on their faces. They had been beaten for their faith in Jesus. In 2006 a pastor was shot for leading others to convert from Islam to Christianity. In recent years some have been butchered and boiled. The murder of Christians is brutal and horrific and goes unpunished.
When I meet with these, our brothers and sisters in Christ, I often say to them that I’m praying for them and that I will share with the western church as I am able, so they too may pray. They always answer with a request that the prayer be that they ‘stand strong in the face of persecution.’ I am often humbled and daunted that they never ask for prayer for the persecution to stop. They consider it an honour to be identified with Jesus and also take it as an opportunity to share their faith even with their tormentors. Ultimately they yearn with joyful longing to share in the glory of Jesus when they will see His face.
How can the western church pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout central Asia? Their three requests are:
- pray that they stand strong in the face of their persecution and bring honour to the name of Jesus.
- pray for those that persecute them to come to know Jesus
- pray for the western church to know that not only can Jesus meet all their needs – Jesus Himself is all they need and anything else is extra.
This report was prepared by a mission worker with extensive connections in central Asia, who for obvious reasons prefers to stay anonymous.
Tags: Church, extremism, local believers, prayer
Posted in Central Asia, For Your Information, Suffering church | No Comments »
Posted by Tim on 29th October 2012
For a number of years, Christians have been amazed at the stories coming out of the Moslem world of people coming to faith in Christ as a result of having seen Jesus in a dream. They call him ‘The Beautiful One’. Many of us may have been sceptical at first, but in recent months the number of reports has increased significantly.
Although accurate reports are hard to get hold of, I heard of one church in a central Asian republic where 80% of the believers had come to faith following a dream. There are stories of Imams having a dream and leading the entire congregation of the Mosque to Christ. Just visit a well-known video hosting website and key in ‘dreams of Jesus’ and you will see numerous testimonies. Some reports suggest that Moslems are turning to Christ in greater numbers now than at any time in the 1400 year history of Islam.
Muslims of course are not ignorant of Jesus. He is one of their great prophets, and it is taught that it will be Jesus who comes back at the end of the age to receive the faithful and inaugurate global Islam. But they do not expect to find salvation in Jesus. It should of course be emphasised that receiving a dream about Jesus does not automatically make someone a Christian, or to be more accurate, a Moslem-background believer. This is only the start of their journey of faith, which may lead them deeper into their Moslem beliefs, as Jesus is revered within their own religious tradition.
Many of the people who receive dreams are not searching for Jesus, and are perfectly content Moslems. Reports of the dreams make it clear that the dreamers are in no doubt that it is Jesus they are seeing. They describe him as beautiful, dressed in a white robe and glowing with light. This figure will be instantly recognisable to Christians familiar with the book of Revelation. If the Beautiful One talks, he may tell them to follow him, or that their sins are forgiven. I was given a first-hand report of a mosque in a middle-eastern country where everyone had received a dream. Yet if you ask them who it was, they will answer ‘The Prophet… or maybe Jesus’, as the risk of openly confessing Jesus is very high.
So why are these visions coming now? It cannot be a coincidence that in recent years, just as concerted and committed prayer for the countries of the 10/40 window has been coordinated, it has become very hard for outsiders to get into Moslem communities worldwide to preach the gospel openly. Although many still go undercover, their ability to spread the message is severely restricted. With the rise of militant Islam, pressure on indigenous believers from Palestine to the Philippines has become heavier. Church buildings are being burned and believers being martyred. So the Spirit of God does a new thing, and speaks to Moslems directly when his human followers can’t. Together with the rise of Christian satellite TV and the internet, the Moslem world has never been so technologically open to the Gospel. Those who have dreamed of Jesus may find it hard to meet fellow believers, but they can watch TV and surf the net.
How can we help Moslems find Jesus their Saviour? Above all, prayer. Prayer opens the way into the darkest places and softens the hardest of hearts. If you meet a Moslem, you can ask him if he has had a dream of the Beautiful One (don’t say Jesus!) or if he knows of anyone who has. Gently (remember that persuading someone to change their religion is a crime in many Moslem countries) ask who he thinks it might be. What does he want to say to the Moslem? What does he want of him? Why does he appear now? Respectful questions will open a channel for the individual to reflect on the dream while not imposing our beliefs on him or disrespecting his traditions.
- that Jesus will reveal himself to Moslems in all nations, and that they will see him for who he really is;
- that the faith of Moslem-background believers will be strong despite the persecution they may face;
- that Christian mission agencies will be effective in spreading and broadcasting the Gospel and following up.
Tags: 10/40 window, extremism, Islam, local believers, prayer, Satellite TV, The Beautiful One
Posted in Central Asia, Middle East, Story of the Month, Suffering church | 1 Comment »
Posted by Tim on 26th April 2010
Sixteenth century Japanese fumie, used for treading on as a symbolic renunciation of Christ
Recently, in a troubled central-Asian republic where there has recently been much turmoil, a Christian was kidnapped and tortured by Islamist extremists. In great pain, and with threats of similar violence to his wife and children, he agreed to their demands to renounce Jesus, and was released. Subsequently, he suffered huge pangs of guilt and remorse. Although he had not done this willingly, he had said the words. He felt he had let down his Saviour. How could he find forgiveness for that?
This reminds me of a story explored in Shusako Endo’s prize-winning novel Silence. It concerns a Jesuit priest in mediaeval Japan, who is captured and forced to renounce Jesus by treading on an image of him, as many Japanese believers were forced to do during the seventeenth century. As he wondered where his God was in the midst of his dilemma, he looked at the image of Jesus and felt it saying to him, “Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.” Endo gives us an image not only of a Christ who suffered and was rejected on the cross, but one who continues to be rejected.
What would you say to encourage a man who has denied Christ? Has he lost his soul (2 Timothy 2:12)? Will he be restored in grace as Peter was after he denied knowing Jesus? Is he just a normal flesh-and-blood person, who did the rational thing in a crisis, just like the rest of us would have done? What would you have done in that situation?
Please pray for the believers in this country. Life is hard for them, as they are marginalised by their compatriots, and find it hard to get jobs. They risk being attacked, whether individually or as congregations. A rising current of extremism threatens the notional freedom of religion in this state. Pray that the political situation would stabilise, that law and order would be established, and freedom of religion protected. Pray that the suffering Christians would be encouraged, and comforted in their hardship.
Tags: dilemmas, extremism, Japan, local believers
Posted in Central Asia, Suffering church | No Comments »