It started with Tunisia, a small Muslim country in North Africa with a population of just over ten million, and spread rapidly to Egypt, the largest and one of the oldest nations in the Arabic-speaking world. By February of 2011, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s longest-serving leader since Muhammad Ali in the early nineteenth-century, had stepped down after thirty years in power. Then news of protests came from Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula, quickly followed by Libya. It soon appeared as if each of the twenty-one countries identified as the Arab world had been touched by this upsurge of popular unrest. The West looked on, bewildered at the speed of change, which was perhaps reminiscent of the downfall of the Communist regimes in the 1980s. The same longing for freedom, justice and democracy – the motto of Libya’s transitional council – had found expression in the voices of tens of thousands of Arabs.
However, as the euphoria subsides, the troubles subsist and onlookers watch intently to see whether secular government or religious extremists will hold sway in these nations that have cried out for change.
Unity and diversity
Although the countries of the Arab world appear united in their desire for greater political freedom and economic growth, there are vast differences in terms of their geography, population and culture. Broadly speaking, the Arab world can be identified as comprising three major regions – the Middle East and the Levant, North Africa, and the Gulf Countries, including those of the Arabian Peninsula. The complexity of historical as well as economic and cultural differences in the region make it difficult to generalize about the situation. It is worth taking a closer look at each area, so that we may pray more effectively, particularly at this time of crisis.
Egypt, Sudan and the Levant are distinct from the rest of the Arabic-speaking world in that they have a long tradition of at least nominal Christian witness, dating back in some cases to the first-century AD. The Mount Sinai Arabic Codex 151 (867 AD) appears to be the oldest Arabic translation of the Bible. Since countries in the Middle East have this long-established Christian tradition, the Christian response to recent events has been guarded. Some fear a repetition of events that took place in Iraq after the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s government. The many atrocities committed against Christians, including kidnappings and the murder of church leaders and members, have led to a mass exodus of Christians. In other Arab countries like Egypt, similar acts of violence have occurred since regime change, including the burning of churches. Palestinian Christians also live in increasingly precarious circumstances. On a more optimistic note, after the protests in Tahrir Square, evangelical Christians were able to meet in the open air to express their faith for the first time in living memory.
The secret church
The five Arabic-speaking countries situated in North Africa – Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania – have a very different cultural background and history. Beginning in the 1980s, in the mountains of Kabylia in northern Algeria, a movement of the Holy Spirit has been at work and whole communities have come to know Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Before this time, there were very few known believers in these countries. The Arab population of the Maghreb has also seen the emergence of a national church in the past few decades, with churches in Algeria gaining official legal status. Even Mauritania and Libya, countries that have been tightly closed to the gospel, are reported to have groups of believers meeting mainly in secret. Tunisia and Libya have been most affected by the recent political uprising and it is unclear, as yet, what the results will be for the small Christian fellowships meeting there. One thing is certain; media such as radio, television and the internet still have a vital role in reaching out to encourage isolated believers in North Africa as well a significant part in evangelism.
The heartland of Islam
Saudi Arabia is considered to be the heartland of Islam, since it is there that the religion originated in the sixth-century AD. Consequently, the surrounding countries of the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula have a strong Islamic identity and there are high levels of control over religious practices. This region includes the wealthiest and the poorest countries of the Arab world. Some, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are rich in oil, while Yemen remains impoverished. As is the case in North Africa, God has His people in these nations and, in recent years, some have become emboldened to speak out more openly about their faith, despite the threat of the death penalty deriving from the apostasy law, which is prevalent in this region and states that Muslims have no right to change their religion. Although some of the latest troubles in the Gulf have arisen for economic reasons, in this area, as in other parts of the Muslim world, there are tensions between different Islamic traditions. In particular, the Shi’a Muslims have expressed their sense of oppression by the majority Sunni tribes.
What then shall we do?
Faced with such a complex mesh of problems, it is easy for us to feel overwhelmed and to question whether we can do anything to help the suffering Arab Church or promote the gospel in this region. Yet God calls us to be part of His Church worldwide – to pray, to give and to reach out in love to others. Many believe that now, more than ever, there is a door of opportunity for the gospel to spread to the nations of the Arab Muslim world. May our prayer be that, as the Arab world cries out for freedom from centuries of oppression, the church will respond with the offer of true freedom in the Person of Jesus Christ, for, as the Bible tells us, if you know the truth, the truth shall set you free.
JD (The author of this article is involved in media ministry to the Arab world. For more information, contact www.awm-pioneers.org)