What is it like to be a Christian ... in the Middle East?
There is major concern, but not despair, writes Azar Ajaj
Many in the West assume that the words “Arab” and “Muslim” are synonymous – but that is simply not true.
Christian Arabs existed long before the start of Islam in the seventh century, and when the Islamic caliphate state was established, Christians (as well as Jews) were given three options: convert to Islam, leave the country or stick to their faith and become what is known as “dhimmi.” In the latter case, they were guaranteed certain rights, like the freedom to worship according to their religion, as long as they paid jizya (a tax on non-Muslims – or “protection money”) and adhered to a number of other rules.
Many of our forefathers decided to cling to their Christian faith, and they were willing to pay the price for this decision. They gave their money (by paying the jizya tax for more than 13 centuries), and also often gave up their lives.
It is important to remember that the Middle East – Israel in particular – is the birthplace of the Christian faith, and that Christians have been part of the scene here for 2,000 years.
These believers are a vital part of the global body of Christ, one that is sometimes unseen by Westerners who assume that the whole field belongs to the Muslims, or (in the case of Israel) the Jews.
Not only is our region significant because of its role in the faith’s beginnings, at least half of the world’s Christians belonged to the Middle East and related Eastern areas for approximately 1,000 years. These men and women were a vital part of the Christian faith, and this heritage must not be abandoned to the dust heap of history.
Challenges Facing the Christians in the Middle East
Middle Eastern Christians are under massive pressure from persecution, emigration, economic forces and many other influences. The constant decline in the number of Christians there is like a knife that digs in deeper with every Christian departure – and forms the main challenge for believers in the Middle East. This emigration leaves the Land of the Bible with no witness – or at least a marginalised one.
This decline is largely related to the political instability, tension and civil wars that characterise this area. Some examples are the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the Lebanon civil war, the Iraqi war, the Syrian civil war and Hamas’ domination of Gaza. Although Christians were not the only people who fled to the West, their nonviolence made their emigration rate higher than that of other groups’.
The drop in Middle Eastern Christians can also be traced to the rise in Islamic fundamentalism during the past 30 years. Christian minorities began to feel very out of place in this culture – and many were persecuted to the point of being physically attacked. In most of these Middle Eastern countries – which are defined in their constitutions as Islamic – citizens’ freedoms do not extend to religion. For example, Christians may convert to Islam, but Muslims are forbidden to convert to Christianity.
The economic situation in the Middle East is deteriorating, although the underperformance of economies in the Middle East cannot be reduced to any single factor, like the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the rise of extremism or globalisation (although these factors are significant). In any case, the lack of jobs, the rising cost of living and the low education rates, in conjunction with social, cultural and religious tensions, have contributed to Christian emigration. And the low Christian birth rate relative to that of Muslims is yet another nail in the coffin for the Christian population in the Middle East.
It is clear that the future for believers in this area is not very promising; yet evangelicals must understand their importance in keeping the Christian witness in the Land of the Bible. In some areas, Christians are on the verge of disappearing altogether. This is of vital importance to the worldwide body of Messiah.
But while this should be a major source of concern, it is not cause for despair. God is not finished with the Middle East – with Jews, Muslims or Christians.
Considering all of the turmoil in this area, it is time for the Western church to ask the question Nehemiah posed about the remnant, the small number of his brothers and sisters in the land. He himself had a prosperous life; he was the cupbearer to the king of Persia, yet he cared for God’s people as a small and powerless minority in the midst of a chaotic and violent land.
His question was not the end of the story; rather, it was the beginning. In fact, by sincerely pursuing the peace of his brothers and sisters, Nehemiah was at the same time asking God to guide him to take the right steps to empower and strengthen them.
Therefore, those who seek the “peace of Jerusalem” or the peace of the Middle East should do so with confidence that God will guide us to take practical steps to empower and strengthen the church in this land.
Born and raised in Nazareth, Israel, the Revd Azar Ajaj is an ordained minister who has been caring for his Arab Israeli community in a number of ways for more than 25 years.
He served as the pastor of the local Baptist church in Nazareth for 13 years, and he worked as an executive for the United Bible Society in Israel for 10 years, enhancing relationships between local Arab churches and directing outreach projects to the Muslim community. He also served as the general secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Israel for six years. Azar is currently working on his Ph.D. degree with Spurgeon’s College, researching the history of the evangelical work in Israel. He is also serving as the public relations director and a lecturer at Nazareth Evangelical College.
This article first appeared on the Philos Project