The Middle East—the birthplace of the Christian faith—is one of the most dangerous regions of the world in which to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But in the midst of severe persecution, people are turning to Him in droves.
In parts of war-torn Syria, extremist Muslim groups are giving Christians three options: renounce Christ, agree to extreme suppression or face death. Lela Gilbert, an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, wrote in February that, faced with this choice, the Christian community in the city of Raqqa “opted for dhimmi status—suppression as a ‘protected’ minority—which requires them to submit to an array of demands, including the notorious jizya tax, which can be compared to Mafiosi protection money: purchasing their safety, but under strictly enforced regulations.
“Raqqa’s Christians are now subject to an extreme version of Islamic Shariah law, which among other things forbids them to repair their war-torn churches, worship or pray in public, ring church bells, or wear crosses or other symbols of their faith.”
In Egypt, since the ousting of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last June, Christians have become scapegoats for Islamists who blame them for their loss of political influence, says Todd Daniels, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for the Middle East. “That has been driving attacks on churches, kidnappings and destruction of property,” Daniels said.
Even in Israel, where the law is tolerant of Christians, believers may face persecution from friends and family if they convert from Judaism or especially if they convert from Islam. Not long ago, a young Muslim man was hired to unload boxes of clothing at an evangelical church in Bethlehem. That simple job led to three months of conversations with Pastor Steven Khoury. Several times each week—sometimes in the middle of the night to avoid detection—Khoury would teach the young man about Jesus, eternity and salvation. Eventually the young man put his trust in Jesus as Savior.
But one day, he asked his mother some questions about Jesus and the Quran. Something about the way he spoke made his mother fearful and suspicious. The next morning, the young man woke up to a vicious beating by his father and uncle. He escaped, and for two days he stayed with friends. Then his sister called: “You can come home,” she said. “Everything is fine.”
When he arrived, the Palestinian police were waiting. The young man spent days in jail alongside murderers and drug dealers—for simply asking his mother about the Quran’s description of Jesus.
Despite such persecution and oppression, thousands in the Middle East are committing their lives to Jesus. Churches are seeing explosive growth, and the light of Christ is shining brightly in the darkness.
The light shines as Christians refuse to retaliate when persecuted. “If you forgive people who attack you, particularly in a Muslim context, that is mind-blowing to them,” said Todd Nettleton, director of media and public relations for The Voice of the Martyrs-USA. “For a Christian to say, ‘I’m not going to fight back; I forgive them for this attack,’ that is a billboard for the love of Christ.”
Another powerful witness is the church’s sharing of Christ’s love with those who suffer. Christians in Lebanon, for example, are reaching out to care for Syrian refugees, who these days account for a mind-boggling one-third of the nation’s population.
“There are very fresh wounds from Syria’s role in the Lebanese civil war,” Daniels said. “One man who is leading a lot of these outreach ministries [to refugees] can tell stories of his uncles being kidnapped, his parents’ shop being burned down on multiple occasions by Syrian people, and now he’s at the forefront of loving and serving these people.”
In Syria itself, people are flocking to churches. Nettleton reported that one church has gone from seven services a week to 13, in order to accommodate all those who either have already turned to Christ or are seeking faith.
And that young man from Bethlehem? Upon his release from jail, he went straight to the church. He told Pastor Khoury, “When I walked out of the jail, I realized I had nobody. You are now my family.”The church has stepped up to help their new brother. They provided him with two short-term jobs—evangelizing in a different city and cleaning houses for widows—while they helped him to find permanent employment. And like believers all over the Middle East, in the midst of persecution this young man’s faith is now stronger than ever. ©2014 BGEA