These are difficult days for Christians in the Middle East. In many parts of the region, Christians are facing tremendous challenges and even life-threatening situations.
In Egypt, last summer we saw how Christians became scapegoats for Islamists when they were forced out of power. Still today, petty criminals plot to seize Christian lands and properties in rural areas of Upper Egypt while military and security forces seem tardy or sometimes complicit. The government has not acted to lift restrictions upon Christians, whether in employment in state structures or even allowing repairs of old or building of new churches.
In Iraq, tragedy unfolds as the historic roots of Christianity are being erased. The country’s instability places them in the most precarious position, with no militias to defend themselves and no political representation in negotiations as there is for the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, nor quotas in state structures. The fall of Mosul to the ISIS group showed how Christians face additional pressures from these jihadist groups, who urge them to convert, pay heavy taxes, leave or die.
In Iran, positive diplomatic moves under President Rouhani have not changed the situation for Christians. Many have been jailed recently, forced to turn over the deeds of their properties for bail in ambiguous legal processes while the death penalty remains a threat for any from a Muslim background who become active followers of Jesus. The issue of religious conversion and religious freedom remains one of the unchanging taboos in the country, even for reformers.
In Syria, Christians share the deep suffering of all people in the country and are sometimes directly targeted by Islamist groups because traditionally Christians have been close to the ruling Assad regime. Now, almost 4 million Syrians have left the country and many towns and cities are in ruins. The violence seems to have no end. The latest US-led campaign against ISIS is not expected to change the situation significantly in Syria or Iraq but risks serious fatalities among civilians that will fuel more grievances and refugees.
In other countries, Christians experience varying degrees of safety. In Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey and Jordan Christians enjoy reasonable levels of freedom and security. In Lebanon, Christians are free and a vital part of the society.
Do we have the spiritual and moral grounds to ask people to risk their lives if we don’t?
Many are worried that Christianity is disappearing from many parts of the Middle East. And it is true, even in places where it is not disappearing, it is often marginalised. Some even ask Christians in the Middle East not to leave their countries. One can appreciate the reasons behind this call, but can those who do not live under the same conditions make such a call? Do we have the spiritual and moral grounds to ask people to risk their lives if we don’t?
The fact is, all across the Old and New Testaments, we see occasions when God’s children fled from persecution, and at the same time, stories of God’s people sacrificing their lives for the truth of the Gospel. For example, in 2 Corinthians 11 the Apostle Paul says he fled Damascus through a basket lowered down from a window when his life was in danger, but Paul continued his ministry, ultimately paying the highest price for the Gospel with his life in Rome. This leaves us with a complex theological question: when do we flee? When do we stay put to endure persecution?
The answer is not clear. There is no one answer that fits all circumstances. Sometimes, it is the Lord who leads people to leave for safer places. At other times, it is the Lord who leads people to face the ultimate sacrifice. It cannot be outsiders who tell people which option is the best, or what the Lord wants. The decision is between them and the Lord.
The Lord asked the disciples to stay awake and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he asked his Father to remove his cup of suffering for the world if this was his will. We can only do the same and pray with the church in the Middle East in this dark hour. Let’s hope, we are not asleep and fail as the disciples did when Christ prayed in his agony.
What do you think?
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Frank G shared from his own experience of having to leave a country when Christian workers were expelled, and from the perspective of what happened afterwards:
This is a very important question – and one that my wife and I faced in 1975 when we left Laos as it came under control of the Communists. Not that it affected our decision directly (we had no choice) but it did impact many of our Lao Christian brothers and sisters who remained behind. What should they do?
As you rightly point out the Scriptures give us examples of both – including the apostle Paul who was let down in a basket.
Our conclusion was that God directs each of us according to his will and purpose. There are those whom he wants to flee; others he instructs to stay. Each believer should have clear guidance from God over what to do – and will have peace in making that decision, even though there may be strong pressures one way or the other.
As we look back we see how God chose godly men and women to stay behind – and become solid leaders of the remnant that remained. The Lao church is a much stronger church today.
God also chose for many strong Christians to leave. Some of them were used to have ministry back into Laos – through radio and other means. It was a time of massive upheaval in which many Lao came to faith in Christ.
We pray for those Middle East believers at this time of great hardship and suffering. May they feel God’s presence very near to them as a loving Father – and may they know his protection. We pray too that they may each make the right decisions.
John H writes:
Thank you for this helpful article. I agree with your comment that the Bible does not give clear, specific guidance about this situation. There are many instances of God’s people standing firm against opposition and also of them fleeing persecution. God even sometimes uses the latter to further the extension of His kingdom. A prime example of this is in Acts chapter 8, where it almost seems as though the Lord sent (or at least allowed and used) the severe persecution in order to get His people moving outwards from Jerusalem with the Gospel message, in obedience to the great commission.
So I believe we should pray for great wisdom and discernment for our beleaguered brothers and sisters to know God’s specific will for them in their particular situation. We can also pray that the Lord will use the present severe pressures they face to build, strengthen and extend His Church.