The "Arab Spring" movement that swept out entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt is gaining momentum in Syria. State security forces in this Middle Eastern nation have been unable to stop popular protests that seek the overthrow of President Bashar Assad. Western governments are calling for him to step down.
Like most other citizens in this embattled country bordering Iraq, most Christians support democratic reforms. But Open Doors workers in Syria report that their fellow Christians remain fearful for what may replace this regime. They witnessed from afar the aftermath in other Islamic countries where dictators have fallen from power. Islamists there have increased in power and influence. Religious minorities – namely Christians – are the first to suffer, in most cases even more persecution.
Syria's church dates from the first century, and Christians compose between 8 or 9 percent of Syria’s 21 million people. Traditional churches have a well-respected place in Syrian society. Evangelical churches, however, remain free to worship but face problems when they reach out with the gospel. Muslim Background Believers often face opposition from family and friends.
Assad's regime has long aimed to keep society stable and ensure that Christians and other religious minorities neither pose a threat nor upset followers of Islam. Syria ranks 38th on the Open Doors 2011 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.
Arab Spring is fast becoming a hot, dry summer. Countries hit by this wave of popular democratic movements have seen scant resolution of the social woes that moved the masses to demand change. The protests have not achieved an increase in human rights or religious freedom. Christians fear that the movements that began as expressions of public frustration and desire for a better life have been co-opted by Muslim radicals.
Syrian Christians see that great caution must be exercised when calling for government reform, let alone regime change. They recognize the Islamic religious fervor that motivates some of the opposition. Christians in Syria report that the same foreign extremist fighters who killed innocent Muslims and Christians in Iraq have turned their jihad to Syria. Should President Assad be driven from power, Christians could find themselves further marginalized at best. At worst, their fate may resemble that of Christians in Iraq, a half-million of whom have flooded into Syria. Islamists could force Christians into exile in neighboring Lebanon.
Separated from Libya and Egypt by at least seven time zones, we in the West think the conflicts there ended because they're no longer mentioned daily on CNN. But the world still faces perhaps the greatest change in Middle Eastern politics and society in the last 600 years. Some Muslim leaders are aiming to establish a global Islamic caliphate, a pan-national community that unites Muslims worldwide, either politically or by force, and internationalizes these revolutions.
So what can we as Christians in the West do? First of all, pray. We must understand that what's taking place in the Middle East is a spiritual movement. The forces of hell seeking to oppress, subjugate and kill are on the move. Freedoms and dignities are being lost. As believers in Christ we must stand on the side of human rights and the truth of the gospel.
Let me recommend a powerful way to pray for Christians in the Middle East. Open Doors USA is offering a 30-day prayer calendar starting Aug. 1, which is the start of Ramadan for Muslims. This is an excellent website tool to pray for Christians to reach the Muslim World. For more information, go to www.OpenDoorsUSA.org.
Second, we must examine our own hearts. I hear well-meaning Christians say of radical Muslims, "They hate us." But do we respond as Christ commands – with His love? Or do we feel justified in hating them right back? In Jesus' time, hatred for Samaritans and Jews was probably more pronounced than what we see among warring people groups today. Christ calls us to practice His love by reaching out to those who are not like us. That's why we must empower the church in the Muslim world to be a force for love and reconciliation.
Amid this Middle Eastern climate of fear, chaos and uncertainty, we've never seen such openness to the gospel. In some of these tumultuous places, church requests to Open Doors for Bibles, teaching materials and training have dramatically increased. At no time are people more open to the gospel than when the world is crumbling around them. They're desperate for a spiritual anchor. I can almost guarantee that Islam, which is often the source of the instability they're facing, will not provide that anchor. Many are hearing the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit and are turning to faith in Jesus. That's the paradox of persecution: Despite the violence, the church is growing. And that brings us hope that the turmoil in these societies can be turned around in Christ.
Let's join our brothers and sisters in Syria and the Middle Eastern church as we remember that Muslims are not the real enemy. The enemy is Islam, the spiritual force of darkness that holds 1.5 billion people in a hopeless eternity. These radicals are spiritual prisoners. We Christians in the West must remember that our warfare is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces. As we lift the name of Jesus, He will draw all peoples to Himself.
This article published on July 18, 2011.
Dr. Carl Moeller is president and CEO of Open Doors USA, an affiliate of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians living in the most dangerous countries around the globe since 1955.