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THE MIDEAST: Christian minorities & the risks they face under Islamic rule

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of three explorations of events in the Middle East by Mike Edens, professor of theology and Islamic studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and an emeritus missionary who served 25 years in the Middle East with Southern Baptists’ International Mission Board. The third article by Edens will appear in Baptist Press on Wednesday, March 30. For the initial article, titled, “Are radical governments on the horizon/” go to www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34845.

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–“Are the Christian minorities at greater risk as a result of the uprisings in the Middle East?”

This is another key question that has been posed in a theology class I have been teaching in a Southern Baptist church recently. It’s a question that requires us to think outside our American cultural expectations.

None of us can fully understand the formative forces on ourselves or on friends who live in other cultural and societal settings, but failing to struggle toward this end detracts from abundantly living our faith. We need to understand as best we can the status of our Christian brothers and sisters living under governments that express Islamic values.

It is true that member states of the United Nations, including the Middle Eastern countries, have officially affirmed “The Universal Charter of Human Rights.” In Article 18, that document affirms, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” In addition, Article 20 states, “(1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.”

However, the actual situation is molded by a second reality which is more complex.

The traditional status of Christians under Islamic rule is established by “The Pact of Umar,” thought to date from the terms of surrender drawn up by Umar, the commander of the Islamic army, and the Syrian Christian leaders during the Muslim conquests of the seventh century. Stipulations against Christians included restrictions on repairing or building churches, restraint in public worship and processions, and refusal to seek to convert Muslims to Christian faith while allowing free conversion to Islam by any Christian.

Thus, Muslims and the Islamic religion are placed in a superior position in Muslim societies. While the impact varies today, the “Pact” is generally enforced across the Islamic world. Today this enforcement is expressed in governmental refusal to grant most Christian churches building permits; in social persecution and possible government detention of Muslims who convert to Christianity; and in bias resulting in second-tier educational and employment choices for Christians.

However, another factor also influences our Christian family living under Islamic majority rule. These Christians and their co-nationals have a different view of history from most Americans. For them, events and persons from the distant past continue to have a huge impact in shaping their present community. Middle Easterners sense their community has a solidarity and affinity with past generations. Breaking away from such a strong sense of community requires strong and sustained commitment.

Compared to western ideals, this mindset frequently “feels” as if it lacks individual initiative, is indecisive and avoids risk-taking, all to people’s detriment. However, this mindset is based in regional ideals. The idealized culture of all Arabs is the nomadic Bedouin. Nomadic desert societies are interdependent. Few people brave the desert outside of community. Those who seek to “go it alone” frequently perish.

Arabs do value the individual. Arab Christians affirm that God creates each person in His image; however, they go on to affirm that each of us is born into a family — a community. In the Middle East, that family is communal not nuclear: The extended family networks with other families to fulfill security and other basic needs. The Pact of Umar controls this interaction, ensuring that the Christian family does not assert equality but fulfills responsibilities. To the outsider, this appears to be the same type of ghetto mentality expressed by Polish Jewry before and during the Second World War. I am not speaking of the situation under Nazi rule but that under the Polish rule in which Jews set limits for themselves for the sake of peace with the larger community. Such ghetto thinking exists in minority enclaves under Islam.

So, after a brief understanding of what exists, let’s address the status of the Christian minority in the current turmoil. Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and other nations each have their unique problems, which I will seek to address next week.

In a general sense, however, Christian minorities face these ongoing risks:

1) When society breaks down, old grudges result in current bloodshed. In the Middle East, tribal and family conflicts from several past generations are expressed in modern violence. As government falters, there is less restraint. Frequently these are complex conflicts involving religion, family pride, economic factors, etc. An example of such a conflict was the recent conflict in Egypt between Christian garbage collectors, “zabaleen,” and Muslim men. The result of this conflict was the death of Christians, destruction of their homes and businesses and loss of Christian respect for elements of the Egyptian Army which aligned with the Muslim attackers. In the midst of chaos, powerful forces sometimes choose expediency rather than standing for what is right and just. Pray for justice while asking God to help Christians realize how greatly He has forgiven them and that they will be able to release old, generational grudges and forgive.

2) Conflict in society, even for a just cause, always results in economic loss and social cost. Although all must bear the cost, frequently the poorest in a society, because of their marginal existence, face great indignity and loss in such conflicts. In the Islamic world, Christians are in all financial classes. One of the challenges of such conflicts is for Christians of means, both within the conflict and outside, to help bear the human cost borne by the least able to pay the cost of change. Pray that the needs of the many Middle Easterners who live in abject poverty will be met and that wealthier Christians will see poorer Christians as true brothers and be ready to help them.

3) The greatest risk, in my opinion, is spiritual. In such situations, Christians, as all people, can be overcome by a spirit of helplessness on the one hand or triumphalism on the other. The confidence or distrust a Christian has in the governing authority is only one factor in our walk with Jesus Christ individually and as the church. In the current conflict, Middle Eastern Christians have the opportunity to demonstrate the purpose of human existence affirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ in Luke 10: 27: “Love the Lord God with all your heart, mind, soul and body and your neighbor as yourself.” The risk is that the Christian minority facing such a conflict would not embrace the Master’s challenge to live by His standard and love in the midst of change. Pray that all Christians know Christ and live as His obedient and victorious followers, especially those living in oppression unknown by Americans.

We, too, have challenges, such as praying for the Middle East’s Christians; supporting them by sending those God calls to minister among them for the expansion of His church; and giving financial support though the International Mission Board and other channels. More than just going on mission trips to Muslim countries, go the second mile by building a relationship with a Middle Eastern immigrant to America or an international student or business person who may have family in turmoil in his homeland. Our risk is that we might not see the “least of these” in Jesus’ terms and fail to touch them with compassion and the Gospel.

    About the Author

  • Mike Edens