Revival springs from Arab Winter

There are other developments that give us hope for Christianity in the region – namely, signs of revival in the Arab world.

Christians praying in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Travelujah)
Christians praying in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Travelujah)
It has now been a year since the Arab Spring began shaking the Middle East. From Morocco to Bahrain, the Arab “street” has seen unprecedented politic upheavals. So far, the long-standing rulers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been toppled, while the leaders of Syria and Yemen are close behind. Other Arab nations – such as Jordan, Algeria and Morocco – have quickly enacted reforms to stave off the anger of the masses.
The Arab uprisings came unexpectedly and were launched by a surprising source – the “Facebook generation” of young Arab students and intellectuals longing for the better life of the West. Thus, many Western observers saw great hope in the Arab Spring. Yet this quickly changed. At first, the radical Muslim Brotherhood stayed away from the demonstrations, but then it realized it was missing a golden opportunity to exploit moves toward democracy. The Brotherhood has since been able to use its highly organized networks to win elections in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt. The Arab Spring has turned into an Arab Winter.
In Egypt, Christians and Jews have been the early targets of these newly empowered Islamists. Angry crowds stormed Israel’s embassy in Cairo, forcing the Israeli ambassador to flee. Numerous churches have been burned and even bombed, and Coptic Christians are facing new levels of hostility.
The mounting exodus of Christians from the entire region even prompted the leading Israeli news portal Ynet to recently declare the “End of Arab Christianity,” while Benjamin Sleiman, archbishop of Baghdad, warned of “the extinction of Christianity in the Middle East.”
The truth is that most of the region is changing for the worse, and there are many reasons to be pessimistic. Yet there are other developments that give us hope for Christianity in the region – namely, signs of revival in the Arab world.
Today a unique move of God is underway in the Muslim world. In the book Iran: Desperate for God, published recently by Voice of the Martyrs, a missions organization with a strong presence in Iran, the author states that “the fastest growing movement in the entire Muslim world today [is] Muslims in Iran converting to Christianity.” The book claims that after 30 years of suppression by the ayatollahs, most Iranians “grew weary of the grim, slavish, loveless loyalty to Allah, demanded by their state.”
According to native Iranian pastors, the Evangelical church in Iran before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 numbered a mere few hundred believers. Today, the Evangelical following is estimated at over one million strong. In 2006, even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad angrily decried the rate of Muslim conversions to Christianity in his country. Iran’s underground churches are currently experiencing an annual growth of 20 percent – the highest rate worldwide (followed by Afghanistan at 16%).
A look at Algeria finds a similar dynamic. An Algerian pastor who visited Jerusalem last autumn told us that, little more than a decade ago, the churches there had only a few hundred members. Yet even as persecution from Islamic militants has intensified, this pastor reports that today the Evangelical churches in his country can claim more than 200,000 members. The revival started among the Berber tribes but is spreading now to other sectors, and new fellowships are cropping up all over the country.
But what is equally surprising is that these new Christian believers share a passionate love for Israel. The pastor asked me: “Our brothers back home love what you are doing for Israel. Can we open a branch of the International Christian Embassy for Algeria?” Libya also holds surprises. For decades, under the dictatorial rule of Muammar Gaddafi, it was one of the harshest countries for Christians. But the missions guide Operation World reports in its latest edition that “the spiritual climate in Libya has changed significantly [since Gaddafi’s fall]… There is notable spiritual hunger among Libyans but not enough Bibles for those seeking them…” Concerning Morocco, the same source writes: “A Moroccan Church is emerging and accelerating in growth and maturity”.
The report on Tunisia reads: “New believers have increased, and new church groups have come into being over the past few years.”
Meanwhile for Jordan, Operation World reports: “The evangelical Church is experiencing encouraging growth, doubling from 1995 to 2010.” Similar reports are emerging from Syria and Lebanon. And in Iraq, although traditional Assyrian Christians are fleeing in droves, the number of Evangelicals has risen to more than 50,000 in a few short years.
Back in Egypt, outdoor worship gatherings last autumn drew tens of thousands of Christians from Coptic, Catholic and Evangelical backgrounds to pray together for unity and revival in their country.
Here in Jerusalem, we also are hearing testimonies from Arab Christians of a fresh move of God among their communities in Israel and the Palestinian areas. Just recently, we received a report from a native Baptist pastor of a new Bible study group established in Jenin, once the suicide bomber capital of the West Bank.
All this should show us that in the midst of the great political upheavals in the Arab world, there is also a spiritual revolution taking place. What we see today is not the end of the Arab church but just the beginning of what may be a historic revival to come. Though they are starting from low numbers, the average rate of growth for churches among nations in the Arab/Muslim world is between 5% and 10%, which is higher than in any Western country today. In fact, one of the most sustained revivals is taking place in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population but is now around 30% Christian.
Based on all these reports, we are coming to realize that God is doing hidden work in the Arab world, even amidst the massive political unrest.
While the days ahead may bring huge challenges for the region, and in particular for the nation of Israel, we should also expect to see God moving powerfully among those He is calling.
Why is all this relevant for those of us focused on Israel? Well, it holds many implications for us. First of all, we have seen that even within Arab countries that are outwardly hostile to the Jewish state, there is a growing remnant that loves Israel and prays for the peace of Jerusalem.
I will never forget the appeal of a wellknown Israeli rabbi and Knesset member who once urged us: “Please tell your Christian friends to send more missionaries into the Arab world!” I was not sure whether I understood him correctly. But he explained: “If our neighbors believe what you believe, then we will have peace in the Middle East.”
A few weeks ago, I asked the same rabbi for his take on the Arab Springturned- Winter. He replied: “I am very optimistic. I believe what we see today is the last roar of the Islamic giant. But we will see him falling, and the glory of God will shine over the region.”

Dr. Bühler is executive director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem;