The church in the Middle East: God’s puzzling providence and irresistible Spirit

Jesus said: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). He has been doing this for almost 2 millennia now, and the process has made an extraordinary study for church historians. I was impressed anew by the complexity of this work of our Lord, earlier this week, when I read a post by Peter Leithart regarding the church in the Middle East. On the one hand, I was saddened by the apparent setbacks for the church in that region, where the course of God’s providence is beyond our understanding but is troubling. On the other hand, I was caused to rejoice on account of the ways in which God’s Spirit moves like the wind, giving new life to people in spiritual bondage, despite the difficulty of their circumstances.

Puzzling providence

The situation Leithart describes looks alarmingly bleak in many countries:

According to Walter Russell Mead, more than half of the Christians in Iraq have fled the country since 2003. Today it’s happening in Syria. Swedish journalist Nuri Kino reports on a “silent exodus of Christians from Syria” in the face of “kidnappings and rapes.”

It’s a regional trend. Two years ago Caroline Glick reported that “at the time of Lebanese independence from France in 1946 the majority of Lebanese were Christians. Today less than 30 percent of Lebanese are Christians. In Turkey, the Christian population has dwindled from 2 million at the end of World War I to less than 100,000 today. In Syria, at the time of independence Christians made up nearly half of the population. Today 4 percent of Syrians are Christian. In Jordan half a century ago 18 percent of the population was Christian. Today 2 percent of Jordanians are Christian.” 

This is discouraging but, as Leithart observes, it is “only half the story.”

God’s irresistible Spirit

At the same time that traditional Christian populations are being driven out, Muslims are converting to Christianity at what missionaries and other Church leaders describe as an unprecedented rate. Joel Rosenberg claims that “more Muslims are coming to faith in Jesus Christ today than at any other time in history.” 

An Iranian dissident told Rosenberg that there may be as many as 4.5 million converts in Iran. New Testaments and other Christian literature have flooded Iran, and Iraqi pastors cannot keep up with the demand for Christian books and pamphlets. Out of the carnage of Sudan, as many as a million have become Christians since 2000. By 2005, there were reportedly 100,000 Christian converts in Saudi Arabia. Because of vicious persecution, it is impossible to tell how many Christians there are in Afghanistan, but some have estimated as many as 20-30,000, and there is a similar number in Uzbekistan, a country that twenty-five years ago had only a handful of believers. Accurate numbers are difficult to find and more difficult to confirm, but even if these are inflated, there’s little doubt that something remarkable is happening.

Islamic regimes are reported to be reacting to what looks to Christians as like evidence of the powerful work of God’s Spirit, but what looks very threatening to them.

Ahmad Al Qataani startled a journalist in a December 2001 interview by saying that “every hour, 667 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every day, 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every year, 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity.” In 2004, a Shiite apologist, Hasan Mohammadi, was sent out to high school students to preserve their faith, since “on average every day, fifty Iranian girls and boys convert secretly to Christian denominations in our country.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to stop Christianity’s spread in Iran, and under his watch Christian leaders have been kidnapped and murdered.
The reasons for conversion vary. Many of the converts say that Islam failed to meet their spiritual needs. No matter how faithful they were in fulfilling Islam’s demands, they had no confidence that they were saved, no assurance that they would spend eternity in paradise. Formulaic prayers left others spiritually dry, and they were surprised by and attracted to the intimacy of Christian prayer. Women find in Christianity a refuge from belittlement and abuse. Many converts claim that Isa Masih, Jesus Messiah, appeared personally in visions or dreams to call them to follow him.

In his many interviews with converts and leaders in Christian ministry to Muslims, Rosenberg found that Islamic radicalism has been a paradoxical preparatio evangelii. When the Ayatollah Khomeini led the Islamic revolt in Iran in 1979, Muslims suddenly saw Islam as the rest of the world sees it. An evangelist told Rosenberg that Khomeini exposed Islam “not just to the Christian populace but to the Muslims themselves. . . . it’s as if God used that man, the Ayatollah . . . to expose Islam for what it is and for Muslims to say to themselves, ‘That’s not what we want; we want something else.’”

September 11 had the same effect. Many Muslims joined Americans in horror as they watched the airliners slam into the World Trade Center towers. Their sadness and shock turned to anger when they saw other Muslims rejoicing at the carnage. “Is this who we really are?” they began to ask themselves. “Is this what it really means to be a Muslim?”

I concur with Leithart that “it would be a delicious divine irony if Khomeini sowed the seeds of his own movement’s destruction, if, just as Islam was recovering its global heft, Muslims turned in their sleep from Muhammad to the prophet Isa Masih.”

Reading Leithart’s article, I was reminded of what has occurred in China. I recall the great distress of Christian missionaries who were forced out of the country, leaving behind groups of believers who seemed to those missionaries unlikely to survive the fearsome religious suppression that was descending upon them. But decades later we began to learn of the amazing work of God’s irresistible Spirit, and I continue to rejoice at what God is doing in China to build Christ’s church, in spite of the difficulties that many congregations face.

God’s ways sometimes puzzle me, but I rejoice at the promise of Jesus that the gates of Hades will not prevail against his building of his church. The church has its triumphs and its tragedies, but the wind of God’s Spirit continues to blow and churches spring up where we might have least expected them to be. In the comment thread on Leithart’s article, some respondents are skeptical of the figures Leithart quotes, and I am not in a position to verify or disprove them. But I do not find the picture he has painted implausible, given the ways God has worked in the past.

You can read Peter Leithart’s article,  “Religious Change in the Middle East,” here.

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