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Spring comes to the Arab world

Since the start of the year, the Arab world has been defying all predictions. Ray Porter, Director of World Mission Studies at Oak Hill, reflects on the Arab Spring.

The Arab spring has begun to make the October 2010 edition of Operation World look out of date already! Changes of government in Egypt and Tunisia, with ongoing conflict elsewhere, have begun to open up the possibility of change throughout the Middle East.

The death of Osama bin Laden is another piece of the jigsaw, as the long-term political predictions for the Middle East are unravelling. The end result of all these events is unpredictable, but the expectation is that there will be change. That change may be for the advance of the gospel.

The prophetic books of the Old Testament present us with a God who is in control of the politics of the world. Is God still working like that today? We have no such divinely inspired explanation of the modern world and the news media are a poor substitute. We recognise that God's pattern of working in the nations since the coming of Christ is different from that in the Old Testament.

Now Jesus has been given authority over all the nations of the world. God's people are no longer primarily restricted to one nation, but scattered across the world. But the change in the nature of his people does not imply that God is working in any different way now to what he did in the Old Testament. He is still the one who is in charge of the times and seasons. He crushes dictators and raises up new rulers. He shakes the nations to achieve his purposes.

God's unexpected work

What are God's purposes? Jesus said that he would build his church and we look at world politics to see how he is doing that. In the lifetime of many of us, we have seen God at work to grow his church in unexpected ways.

In the 1950s, no one expected that the withdrawal of the nominally Christian colonial powers would be the stimulus for the fast growth of indigenous evangelical churches in Africa. In the 1960s, it was not expected that a failed attempt at a Communist takeover would result in the rapid growth of the Indonesian church, giving the largest Muslim majority country over 15 per cent of the population professing faith in Christ.

In the 1970s, no one expected that 20 years of the Communist takeover of China would provide the nursery beds for the fastest growth of the Christian church in Asia since the first century. In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the opportunity for the church to grow in the territories it held in bondage. Who would have predicted that Yeltsin, its last President, would have an Orthodox Christian funeral? In these and many more countries, political events had a major role in gospel growth.

What has this to do with what is now happening in the Middle East? The situation remains confusing and unpredictable. Some governments have fallen and others are fighting to survive. Rebellion is in the air and a new spirit of rejecting the status quo is sweeping the region.

Political commentators have noted that these actions are not Islamic revolutions, with banners of religious zeal being paraded. In Egypt it was notable that Muslim and Coptic Christians rebelled together against Mubarak (although sadly there has also been inter-communal fighting). There appears to be a common desire for greater economic benefits and freedom from the restraints that have been imposed for decades.

Of the countries of the Middle East, only Egypt and Lebanon now have sizeable Christian communities. Both are predominantly ethnically and culturally defined groups who have a long history of living alongside the Muslim majority, but little evangelistic engagement. The attitudes produced by the Islamic concept of dhimmi briefly defined as the conquered 'people of the book', who accept Islamic law and taxes prevail across the region.

As Islamic militancy has increased, this long history of mutual tolerance has been broken. As dictatorships have been destroyed by foreign intervention, existing Christians have suffered and the only contribution to gospel advance has been the creation of uncertainty, in which people are ready to rethink their world view.

In Iraq, Christians had greater freedom and security under Saddam Hussein than under American and British conquest and there are now half the number of Christians compared with the 1990s. Many have been killed, but others have fled the country.

One church in Baghdad reported that it had seen converts, but all of them have been killed. Only in the Kurdish areas has there been growth and the first official recognition of the Kurdish Christian Church.

In recent years, the greatest Christian growth in Muslim countries has probably been in Iran. Ever since the Islamic republic was established in 1979, the growth has been faster there than at any time since the 7th century. More recently it has accelerated both within the country and among the exiles. This growth has been by conversions from Islam. In a country where apostasy carries the death penalty, such growth is the work of the Holy Spirit.

How should we be faithful?

As we consider God's actions in history, we cannot conclude that democratic governments will always be conducive to gospel growth. God does not link the growth of his church to any particular political system and Christians should be very cautious in supporting their government's action to deliver democracy. Democracy is not the same as gospel advance. We must not confuse actions that we may see as for the advantage of our own nations with the advance of the Kingdom of God.

While we look for signs that the church is growing in different countries around the world, and recognise that this is God's revealed purpose for the present era, we should not think that this is the only work that God is doing in the modern world. The whole of the scriptures teach us about a God of justice who is carrying out his judgments on nations not only at the end of time, but also in the course of history. Such judgement may not only be shown against nations who reject him, but also towards churches that have turned from him.

God raised up the Babylonians as the punishment of apostate Judah, just as the Assyrians had devastated Israel. Habakkuk grapples with the theology of such an action. As the biblical story develops it becomes clear that God has purposes of blessing in the establishment of the diaspora as his people learn how to live faithfully under different demographic policies.

The Assyrian practice of transmigration and the mixing of ethnic groups resulted in some dispersed Jewish communities, even if in the northern kingdom itself there were only the syncretistic Samaritans. Babylon's desire for assimilation and the replacement of Jewish names and identity by Babylonian ones, provided the opportunity for both religious faithfulness and civic usefulness in the case of Daniel and his friends.

The Persian policy of reuniting people and their traditional territories called for a more difficult decision about remaining faithful to God. Ezra and Nehemiah led the return to rebuild the temple, but some like Mordechai, perhaps after a brief return to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2 and Nehemiah 7:7), decided to remain in Persia. The Old Testament call to God's people to be faithful to him, in whatever situation they are placed, became the pattern for New Testament believers. God is not tied to any one political system, but we are called to be faithful in whatever situation we are placed.

The question for us in the Arab spring is how we should be faithful. Two mission agencies working in the area have written as follows. First, this from Arab World Ministries (who are now part of Pioneers) writing about a new television programme:

Right now, the Arab world presents us with an unprecedented opportunity. We can choose to act or sit back and ignore this odd part of the world. No one knows how things are going to turn out or, for that matter, how they will affect each one of us. But right now, across the whole Arab region, there are people asking the question: 'Why? Why do we have to go on putting up with the same old ways?' It is now time for us to make the Arab Christian voice be heard.

And from Middle East Christian Outreach:

If young Arabs are losing their fear of repressive, totalitarian regimes, perhaps they are also losing their fear of asking deep questions about their own faith, and of standing up for what they believe even if it is not what they have always been told. As we've seen God moving in Arab hearts and minds in an unprecedented way over the last few years, fear has nevertheless continued to be a theme in the messages we receive from those God is touching. It is what keeps many Muslims locked into Islam even when they are deeply dissatisfied and have found something much more satisfying in the Gospel.

These two statements are looking at the situation from slightly different points of view. One is looking for the presence in the situation of an authentically Christian voice speaking out boldly from the oppressed minorities joining in with the criticism of current regimes. The other is looking to see a change of mindset that will open up the Islamic world in a new way to the gospel. Both want to engage with the present situation in a positive way.

This presents us with some clues as to how we should respond to the situation. As outsiders, we have no part in the political actions and would not want to encourage our governments in any specific action. Such direct action is in the hands of local Christians and we can pray that they may be wise. We want them also to be gospel-centred, which is where our own emphasis should be. We look for the present turmoil to open doors for the gospel into the Muslim world. We will pray that the desire for freedom is not hijacked by extremist Islamic groups.

One of God's judgments on nations is the withholding of the word of God from them. This does not seem to be the present situation in any of these countries. In each of them, there are Christian communities both national and expatriate. However, many of them are not concerned with evangelising the Muslim majority. Our prayer should be that these churches are revived, become biblically directed and active in evangelism.

The proportion of missionaries (by whatever name they are known) in the Middle East is disproportionate to the needs of the situation. More Christians should look at the changing situation and ask what forms of help from outside might be given to the church and how they themselves could be involved.

Not everyone can move to a Middle Eastern country and be involved directly in ministry, but many of us live in areas where there are people from the countries in turmoil. They may have relatives killed or injured. They may themselves have escaped from threatening situations.

British politics may be striving to keep foreigners out, but this is a time for Christians to welcome these people that they might know the love of Christ through his followers and be open to hearing the gospel of salvation. Christ is the only certainty in a time of uncertainty, and we want to introduce him to them.

All statistics in this article are taken from Jason Mandryk (Ed) Operation World 7th edition (Biblica, 2010).
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Ray Porter is Director of World Mission Studies at Oak Hill.  
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