Christians Can be ‘Agents of Forgiveness and Reconciliation’ Amid Middle East Unrest

( [email protected] ) Mar 05, 2011 07:32 AM EST
Terry, chief executive of Christian broadcasters SAT-7, has been living in the Middle East for nearly 40 years and has never seen anything like the demonstrations that have swept across the region in the last few weeks.
A Libyan man flashes the V sign as he stands over a destroyed tank at the Al-Katiba military base which fell to protesters against Moammar Gaddafi in Benghazi AP

Terry, chief executive of Christian broadcasters SAT-7, has been living in the Middle East for nearly 40 years and has never seen anything like the demonstrations that have swept across the region in the last few weeks.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, he hoped that one day something similar would happen in the Middle East, where authoritarian regimes have defined the political landscape for decades. No one could really imagine it happening back then, he recalls, but now that it has, a new future for the region and for the church is within tantalising reach.

“I can’t begin to stress how significant these days are,” he says.

“There is no doubt we are going to look back on this revolution as a massive turning point for the whole region, and for good or for bad, life is never going to be the same again for the church or for Christian witness in this part of the world.”

That’s not to say Terry expects the Middle East to be changed in a day.

In Iran two years ago, the people rose up and lost their lives in a desperate struggle against the regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but it was brutally suppressed and failed to bring the breakthrough so many Iranians had hoped for.

In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was ousted a few weeks ago, 43 demonstrators who were picked up during the protests have still not been returned to their families and no one knows whether they are dead or alive. Post-revolution, the food prices are still high, wages have not increased, and jobs are in short supply.

Yet the people are still full of joy, says Terry, because the oppressive fear they lived under before has gone and even if the migration towards freedom is a slow one, there is the conviction that it will be established one way or another.

“There are going to be countries that are really changed and there are other countries where it’s going to take longer and there may be setbacks, but this is not a reversible thing, any more than the vote for women in Britain was reversible,” says Terry.

“There may be setbacks and oppressions but ultimately oppression and brutality don’t survive. They simply cannot.”

The Egyptians for one, he says, are not going to rest until they have elections in September and contrary to the fears expressed by some, Terry does not think an Islamic takeover of the country is likely.

“This is not the 1970s and 1980s. The Muslims have not been leading this revolution, they have been at the back of the crowd and if anything, they have discredited themselves by being the last to pile on.”

As for the church, things could not get any worse than they already have been under repressive regimes that have done their best to restrict the witness of the church.

In Egypt, dozens of Christians have been killed in targeted attacks by Islamic militants in recent months and church growth has been hindered by irksome regulations. For one thing, Christians have had to go through a convoluted process in order to gain permission to build a new church and converts have not been allowed to change the religious affiliation displayed on their ID cards, meaning that they must live publicly as Muslims.

In Libya, conversion to Christianity is forbidden and the only way that Christian literature makes it into the country is by smuggling it. The activities of the few public churches that exist in Libya are heavily monitored by the state and evangelism is off limits, while the broadening of Islamic laws to appease extremist Islamic groups has only made life harder for the tiny community.

The lack of freedom for the people to choose and practise their beliefs has been a major stumbling block for church growth in the Middle East, but if this were to change the potential for church growth is immense.

SAT-7’s Christian programmes are already watched by some 15 million people across the Arab world but Terry anticipates many more would respond to the Gospel if they only had the chance to hear it - and the freedom to respond.

“This revolution can bring about either more persecution of the church, which will have its own fruit, or it will have a new openness which will result in enormous church growth,” he predicts.

“If there were over the next five years a revolution that became practical in its application and there were social and political freedoms, we would see churches overflowing with converts from Islam.”

Certainly it is going to take a long time for the dust to settle and for nations to be rebuilt. As that long process unfolds, Terry says the church must be a part of the national dialogue for reconstruction and stand up for justice and truth amid the tumult.

The voice of the church is particularly important in the formation of a new constitution that is not built exclusively on Islamic principles but upholds a civil society in which Christians are not merely protected minorities but equal citizens.

At a time when communities face great uncertainty and blood is still being shed in the name of freedom, one of the most important roles the church can play is in the area of reconciliation, Terry believes.

The church itself has already experienced this in its own way, with evangelical Christians in Egypt shedding tears and offering prayers for the Orthodox Church after the deadly New Year’s bombing of a church in Alexandria. In another SAT-7 broadcast, church leaders in Iraq offered words of comfort to the Egyptian church, reassuring them that they were not alone in their suffering.

He concludes: “These amazing stories are wonderful foundations for future church relations in the Middle East.

“The message of grace and forgiveness is one of the unique things about the Christian faith and unfortunately there is no forgiveness in Islam.

“In this revolution, in the Arab world today, Christians can be agents of reconciliation, forgiveness and renewal, bearing witness and being out on the streets defending the rights of everyone.”