Update on the Arab Spring

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

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.

1112138276The 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.

Islam in central Asia

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.

The Beautiful One

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.

Please pray:

  • 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.

Boko Haram declares ‘war’ on Christians in Nigeria

We don’t often mention West Africa in these pages, but the civil strife in the oil-rich state of Nigeria which has been simmering away for several years reached new depths last weekend when the islamist group Boko Haram announced a ‘war’ on Christians.  In a statement reported by the Egyptian news network Bikya Masr it said:

We will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.

Boko Haram’s name roughly translates as ‘western education is sacrilege’.  In this context, education is used as a metonym for anything Western, since Christian missionaries to the Islamic sultanates in the north of Nigeria used education as an evangelistic tool when the country came under British control in the early 20th century.

Boko Haram has committed a number of atrocities against Christians in the past, notably in the city of Jos where a church was bombed in February.   Over the last 18 months it has also coordinated attacks in other major cities, and last January went on a rampage in Kano where it was able to intimidate the police to such an extent that it went unchallenged.  Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has vowed to crush Boko Haram, yet the security forces seem to have made little progress.

The jihadist group wants to establish Sharia law throughout Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, which politically dominates the rest of West Africa.  This would have huge repercussions on Nigeria’s 61 million Christians as well as the rest of the region.  Boko Haram is not merely Islamist but also radically anti-West, rejecting any western influence or products.  Given the amount of crude oil Nigeria supplies to the West (it is the world’s 8th largest exporter of oil) it is inconceivable that Western powers would not intervene should Boko Haram come close to taking control of the state.

Map of Nigeria showing in green states implementing Sharia law

Like many other West African countries, Nigeria is roughly divided north-south, with the coastal provinces dominated by Christians, and the northern provinces under Moslem control.  All Nigeria’s northern provinces, which have been Moslem for over 1000 years, already use Sharia law, but Boko Haram’s strategy aims at exploiting the deep rifts between the two zones, aggravating the historic tensions between the religions, hoping to divide the state and make it easier to conquer.  A more inclusive government policy aimed at reconciling the two regions and overcoming the sense of alienation in the north, would do much to marginalise Boko Haram.

Many Nigerian Moslem leaders have been vocal in condemning Boko Haram, urging it to take up the path of peace and denying that it represents true Islam, but at some cost.  Boko Haram is content to attack not only Christians and the Nigereian state, but also fellow Moslems who do not support it.

Please pray:

  • for the safety and security of Nigerian Christians;
  • for the Nigerian government to be effective in combating Boko Haram;
  • for peaceful relationships between Moslems and Christians, and particularly for Christians to have the grace to refrain from reacting violently when attacked.

Chief Rabbi defends Christians

We have mentioned a couple of times in the last year the precarious situation of indigenous Christians in North Africa, and the Middle East, and recently the House of Lords debated religious persecution in the region.  In a wide ranging debate featuring several high profile speakers including the Archbishop of Canterbury, one notable intervention was from Lord Sacks, the Chief Rabbi.  We thought it worth reproducing an extract from his speech.

It was Martin Luther King who said ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends’.

That is why I felt I could not be silent today.  As a Jew in Christian Britain, I know how much I, my late parents and, indeed, the whole British Jewish community owe to this great Christian nation, which gave us the right and the freedom to live our faith without fear.  Shall we not, therefore, as Jews stand up for the right of Christians in other parts of the world to live their faith without fear?

And fear is what many Christians in the Middle East feel today.  We have already heard today about the plight of Coptic Christians in Egypt, of Maronite Christians in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon, of the vast exodus of Christians from Iraq and of the concern of Christians in Syria as to what might happen there should there be further destabilisation.  In the past year, we have heard of churches set on fire, of a suicide bombing that cost the lives of 21 Christians as they were leaving a church in Cairo, of violence and intimidation and of the mass flight of Christians, especially from Egypt.  I believe that we must all protest this series of assaults – some physical, others psychological – on Christian communities in the Middle East, many of which have long, long histories.  I, and I hope all other Jews in Britain, stand in solidarity with our Christian brothers and sisters, as we do with all those who suffer because of their faith.

I have followed the fate of Christians in the Middle East for years, appalled at what is happening and surprised and distressed by the fact that it is not more widely known.  We know how complex are the history and politics of the Middle East and how fraught with conflicting passions, but there are two points that I wish to make that deserve reflection.

Is this the future for Middle Eastern churches?

First, on the Arab Spring, which has heightened the fear of Christians in many of the countries affected, we make a great intellectual mistake in the West when we assume that democracy is, in and of itself, a step towards freedom.  Usually, that is the case, but sometimes it is not.  As Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill pointed out in the 19th century, it may merely mean the ‘tyranny of the majority’.  That is why the most salient words in the current situation are those of Lord Acton, in his great essay on the history of freedom, who said: ‘The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities’.

That is why the fate of Christians in the Middle East today is the litmus test of the Arab Spring.  Freedom in indivisible, and those who deny it to others will never gain it for themselves.

Secondly, religions that begin by killing their opponents end by killing their fellow believers.  Today, in the Middle East and elsewhere, radical Islamists fight those whom they regard as the greater and lesser Satan, but earlier this week we mourned the death of 55 Shia who were killed in a terror attack in Iraq.  Today, the majority of victims of Islamist violence are Muslim, and shall we not shed tears for them, too?  The tragedy of religion is that it can lead people to wage war in the name of the God of peace, to hate in the name of the God of love, to practise cruelty in the name of the God of compassion and to kill in the name of the God of life.  None of these things brings honour to faith; they are a desecration of the name of God.

May God protect Christians of the Middle East and people of faith who suffer for their faith, whoever and wherever they are.

We are grateful to CFI for bringing this speech to our attention through their magazine ‘In Touch’

Islamic Democracy

TurkeyIn recent months there has been much discussion about the form of government that will ultimately evolve in the countries that threw off their despotic leaders during the Arab Spring earlier this year – so far only Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.  One term which is frequently mentioned is Islamic Democracy. Some western leaders are keen to point out that Islam is not necessarily incompatible with democracy, and frequently cite Turkey as a good example of a secular state in an Islamic country.  In November US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even promised that the US would not oppose Islamic political parties which emerge in the new democracies.  But then the Obama administration is keen to demonstrate that it is not inherently anti-Islamic, unlike its predecessor.

But is this Islamic democracy necessarily going to be a good thing?  Forgetting its impact on western hegemony for the moment, and just considering what happens in the country concerned, let us examine the paragon, Turkey, and see what lessons it has for us.  Turkey is at the moment in the process of drafting a new constitution, and some proposals are causing great concern among minority communities.  There is the possibility that clauses guaranteeing citizenship to all Turkish-born people may be changed, allowing only Muslims to be citizens.

Although the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is self-consciously promoting human rights and equality in an attempt to join the EU, it is clear that many of the Muslim population have no sympathy for other religions and do not agree with the government policy of promoting equality.   Life is far from easy for Turkey’s various minorities, including Greek, Armenian and Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians as well as Kurds, Jewish people and Alevis.  As well as routine discrimination they suffer legal restrictions on internal governance, education, places of worship and property rights, although recent legislation has begun to affect the latter.  And of course, there are periodic persecutions and lynchings which, though not necessarily state-sponsored, seem neither to be prevented or investigated by the police.  Proselytising is not illegal, though people who change their religion may be subject to harassment.

So Turkey is not an example that would inspire confidence in our Christian brothers and sisters in North Africa.  How might such Islamic democracy develop there?  The question of Sharia law is the principal concern for Christians, since it would introduce a legal system which is clearly prejudicial to minorities.  For example, in Iran and Pakistan, which both operate Sharia, it is illegal for a Christian to testify in court against a Muslim.  So if only Christians are the witnesses of injustices perpetrated against them by Muslims, they cannot legally defend themselves.

The largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, is in favour of introducing Sharia law.  The Brotherhood, though not a political party, is a significant political force in most near- and middle-eastern countries, and inspires many of the largest Islamic parties.  While in Egypt it has public pretensions to non-violence, in Gaza it is the inspiration behind Hamas.  Life is, of course, unbearably hard for Christians under Hamas, and completely impossible for Jews.

Life is already becoming harder for Egypt’s nine million Christians.  In October Christians protesting peacefully against laws which restrict the construction of churches were savagely attacked by the army and police, who then tried to blame the unarmed Christians for attacking them.  26 died and over 300 were injured.  There are reports of stones being thrown at women in the street who are not wearing burqas.  This is a glimpse of the future should the Muslim Brotherhood win an election and introduce Sharia law.

For the sake of our brothers and sisters in Islamic countries, let us pray that Islamic Democracy does not live up to its worst potential.  We should remember that other secular democracies with majority Islamic populations include Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Indonesia, Syria and Azerbaijan.  All of these countries are high on Open Doors’ persecution index, and are not good places for Christians to live.

Opinion – democracy in Egypt may not be as good as it sounds

EgyptFollowing recent events in Egypt, many in the West are thrilled at the prospect of democracy emerging in this regionally strategic country.  There is a euphoria that keeps us watching the news updates, willing the demonstrators on.  We believe these are historic times.  There are, in fact, many parallels between the current popular demonstrations which have taken place not only in Egypt but in several other countries in the Near East/Middle East/North Africa (NEMENA) region, and the uprisings against Soviet rule in much of east and central Europe two decades ago.  There is a similar sense of hope and optimism that people power can unseat dictators and topple regimes.

Before we get too excited, we should remember that democracy has not yet broken out either in Egypt, where they have merely replaced an unpopular military dictatorship with an untried one, or in Tunisia, where individual government members have changed but the regime continues.  Other leaders in the NEMENA region may have reshuffled the government to make a show of listening to their subjects, but in reality may be more than willing to use force to crush opposition demonstrations and maintain their grip on power.

We should also remember what happened to those European countries in the post-Soviet era.  In the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, 18 European countries gained independence or toppled a communist regime.  However, far from being rosy, their subsequent history has largely been squalid and violent.  While there have been some success stories, these countries are in the minority.  Some of the others have subsequently broken up, many have experienced civil war or open conflict with their neighbours, even undergoing genocide in some circumstances.  In several, democracy is far from stable, often compromised by military power or mafia dollars, and some experience little freedom of speech or freedom of religion.  Many are still cripplingly poor and life expectancy is short.  Even the former East German states are still significantly poorer than their West German counterparts.  It seems that in Europe, the democracy which we prize above everything else does not necessarily bring all the answers.

How then can we expect it to be any different in NEMENA?  Many countries in the region are already in circumstances similar to those outlined above.  Civil war, armed conflict, totalitarianism, corruption and poverty are no strangers to these countries.  Is democracy really going to be able to offer a solution to these problems?  Has the ‘democracy’ which the West imposed on Iraq made that country a safer, wealthier, fairer place to live?  The Christians living in Baghdad would not think so.

Toppling dictators who oppress their own people and enrich themselves at the expense of their countries’ poor cannot be a bad thing.  What replaces them can, however, be equally bad.  Into a post-dictatorial power vacuum can step ruthless forces, whether economic, military or spiritual, which can hijack a fledgling democracy for their own nefarious purposes.  Often the general public, having experienced years of corruption and poverty, are only too keen to vote for a strong man who offers peace, security, wealth and… salvation.  In this volatile region, the last thing we need emerging is a false messiah.

Let us pray for these countries: that God’s hand will be on them, for His will to prevail, and for the Christians to be bold in their affliction, and comforted in their suffering.

Confess or renounce?

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.