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Is the Church in the Middle East on Life Support? Part 1

The church of the Middle East is on life support, and fingers regularly point at Islam as the cause of its demise.

Some, like influential popular historian Philip Jenkins, have already begun to toll the funeral bells.

How do you prepare future leaders for the Arab church in such circumstances? And are there lessons to be learned for the church beyond the Middle East?

As a teacher of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations and dialogue, here are the top three challenges that I am keenly aware of when teaching the discipline to Christians of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region:

First, Christians of the MENA region tend to come to seminary with considerably high levels of negative feelings and ideas about Islam and Muslims.

Second, Christianity as we know it, and have known it for 2,000 years in the MENA region, may not even exist anymore by the time my children reach the age of my seminary students.

Third, the evangelical students that represent the large majority before me at seminary are staunch believers in evangelism and in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

These significant “challenges” – I do not say “problems” – make up the primary context of the Arab Christian seminary student, and therefore they should drive much of theological education.

If, as I suspect, these characteristics are increasingly common to Christians globally (though the second may come more slowly for the church outside the Middle East), then the three challenges may hold some lessons for the global church beyond the Arab classroom as well.

There are good reasons that lie behind each of these top three challenges.

First of all, my students’ negative feelings and ideas are not unfounded.

They are based on certain facts of history as well as on their personal, family and communal memory.

I may disagree with some of their reading of history and interpretation of experience, but I cannot deny the reality of their feelings and resulting inner struggle.

Second, the ongoing demise of Christianity in the MENA region is sufficient reason to pay very careful attention to my students’ negative feelings.

We cannot lightly dismiss the fears that most MENA Christians live with on a daily basis.

During the first half of the 20th century, Christians (Armenian, Syriac and Greek) reached near extinction in Turkey, the former cradle of Christianity as we know it.

In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of Christians emigrated out of Egypt, Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

These lands where Christianity was born became heirs both to centuries of Islamic imperial and Western colonial dominance.

And the postcolonial nation-states that emerged became hostage to dictatorial and suppressive regimes that victimized not only Christians but also all voices of dissent, difference and diversity.

At the turn of this century, it has become quite clear that entire Christian communities in Iraq and Syria will never recover from the targeted obliteration of which they are now victim.

They suffer both from the unstoppable rise in religious fanaticism expressed in Islamic terms, and from the action of foreign governments that often have little regard for the historical realities of their countries.

With this background and context in mind, can I blame my Christian seminarians for holding on to stereotypes about Islam and Muslims, or for feeling negatively about their future prospects, as well as those of their children and community, in the region?

As for my students’ strong attachment to evangelism, it seems as much connected to the nature of religion as it is to fundamental biblical tenets.

Religions are by nature constructs of competing truth claims. Islam, from the Quran onward, has attempted to co-opt Christianity and Judaism by claiming alignment with the Judeo-Christian message.

Yet, its dogmatic affirmations about the singleness of God and about Muhammad as the “seal of the prophets” have stood high as a radical challenge to Christianity’s more nuanced understanding of God’s unity and to its core theological claims about Christ.

The point is that religions compete, and most Muslims are as keen on gaining converts to Islam as are most Christians on gaining converts to Christianity.

It is also fair to say that this keenness is not borne out of nothing, but out of a legitimate understanding that Christians and Muslims have of their Scriptures’ mandatory call to mission.

Thus, mission is not a “problem” that needs to be liquidated, but it certainly is a “challenge.”

The challenge cannot be brushed under the carpet, and in the pluralistic world we live in, we need an evolving theology of mission that continually informs our communities’ practice.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. Jim Hill, executive director of Churchnet, described Turkey’s biblical history in a video interview during the 2014 Baptist World Alliance gathering in Izmir, Turkey.