Encouraging new season for Christians in Mideast

The media are largely missing this historic development, but it’s worth taking a closer look.

Jordanians attend a mass that was held at the Catholic Latin Church in the city of Fuheis near Amman, Jordan, December 23, 2018 (photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
Jordanians attend a mass that was held at the Catholic Latin Church in the city of Fuheis near Amman, Jordan, December 23, 2018
(photo credit: MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS)
Something hopeful is happening in the Middle East. As 2019 begins, Christians in the region are experiencing the most encouraging season of personal security, religious freedom and peaceful coexistence with Muslims in living memory. The media are largely missing this historic development, but it’s worth taking a closer look.
Just a few years ago, the so-called Islamic State was waging genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria and threatening to destabilize Jordan – a country with a historic Christian population – and “slaughter” King Abdullah II, whom they denounced as a “tyrant.”
In a 2016 cover story in Dabiq – their English-language propaganda magazine – ISIS leaders vowed to “Break the Cross” by annihilating Christianity in the region.
“Do you claim that... Christians follow the right religion and that they will enter the kingdom of heaven?” they asked. “There is no proof for this.... If you continue to disbelieve, then know that you shall be defeated and then dragged altogether into Hell as your eternal, wicked abode.... Allah has made our mission to wage war against disbelief until it ceases to exist, as he has ordered us to kill all pagans wherever they are found.”
In the resulting bloodbath, the number of Christians in Iraq plunged from about 1.5 million to between 200,000 and 300,000 today. Many were killed. Most fled the country. In Syria, the number of Christians has plummeted from 1.25 million to about 500,000 today.
But the genocide has been stopped. The US put together a stunningly successful coalition of nearly 80 countries to counter ISIS. True heroes have included the Kurds and the leaders of numerous Sunni Arab countries – among them Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain – all of which committed military forces not only to rescue Muslims and Yazidis but Christians, too.
The caliphate was destroyed. ISIS is not yet defeated, but it’s on the run. Most followers of Jesus in the region no longer face the threat of annihilation. And while Syria remains a mess, Iraq is calmer and Christians there are rebuilding their churches and their lives.
NO ARAB leader has done more to protect Christians than Jordan’s monarch, himself a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He sent Jordanian forces into battle against ISIS, welcomed Christian and Muslim refugees fleeing from Syria and Iraq, and provided them with housing, food, medical care and schools.
Abdullah vigorously protects the right of Jordan’s 145,000 Christians to build and operate churches, teach the Scriptures, run tours of important Christian holy sites and operate an Evangelical seminary.
Soon after 9/11, the king established a national park on the east bank of the Jordan River to protect the archaeological remains of “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” the site where John the Baptist based his ministry, including baptizing Jesus. The king even granted permission for 13 Christian denominations to build their own churches there, conduct baptisms and teach the rich biblical history of the country.
For all this – and his extensive work encouraging interfaith dialogue and peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews – the king was awarded the prestigious 2018 Templeton Prize.
I have had the joy of getting to know His Majesty personally through a series of extensive meetings over the last several years, including bringing a delegation of American Evangelical leaders to meet with him in November 2017. I have witnessed the deep respect and affection Jordanian Christians have for him, and I can’t think of an Arab leader more deserving of this honor.
THAT SAID, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also deserves tremendous credit for protecting Christians and advancing religious freedom, despite grave challenges.
Islamists are determined to eradicate Egyptian Christianity. The Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and other jihadists have blown up and burned down dozens of churches, attacked Christians with machine-gun fire, and tried to incite sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.
In 2015, ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya, then posted the gruesome video on the Internet.
“Targeting the churches is part of our war on infidels,” declared one Egyptian ISIS leader in 2017.
Yet under the impressive leadership of Sisi, Egypt did not plunge into civil war. After liberating his country from the Brotherhood’s reign of terror, Sisi has dramatically improved the security situation. Terrorists are being arrested or killed. Police are protecting Christian houses of worship. And every church damaged or destroyed has been rebuilt at government expense.
Recently, Sisi – a devout Muslim – built the largest cathedral in the Middle East and presented it as a gift to the Christians of Egypt on Christmas Eve, in a ceremony broadcast nationwide on live TV. He meets regularly with Egyptian Christian leaders. He welcomed Pope Francis to Cairo in 2017, and invited me to bring not one but two delegations of Evangelical leaders to Egypt in the past 14 months. We recently participated in the dedication of the Nativity of the Christ Cathedral and were moved by the presence of so many Muslim clerics, cabinet officials and generals at the ceremony.
During our visit, we also held in-depth meetings with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; Dr. Andrea Zaki, head of Egypt’s Protestant Evangelicals; and three dozen other senior Egyptian Christian leaders. While all were candid that challenges remain for Egypt’s 11 million-plus Christians, they all told us they are deeply encouraged by the enormous progress they have seen in recent years.
One example: the passage of the church building and renovations law that Sisi signed in 2016.
During the 160 years from 1856 (when the Ottomans ruled) to 2016, 2,500 Coptic Orthodox and Protestant Evangelical churches were given approval to operate legally in Egypt.
Yet in just the last two years, an astounding 6,500 churches have applied for permission to operate legally. Of these, 65% have already been visited by the committee tasked with approving applications. About 10% (627 churches) have received formal government approval. The rest are operating freely while their applications are reviewed, since the new law states that the government has no right to close churches that have filed formal applications.
OTHER SIGNS of hope abound. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed recently invited me to bring the first-ever Evangelical delegation to the United Arab Emirates. We were encouraged to learn that more 700 Christian congregations operate freely there, and that Christians constitute 10% of the population. On February 3, Francis will visit the UAE, the first Roman Catholic leader to ever visit an Arab Gulf country.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also recently welcomed my colleagues and me for a historic two-hour meeting at his palace in Riyadh, the first time Evangelical leaders had ever been invited to the kingdom. This followed unprecedented meetings MBS had in 2018 with Tawadros in Cairo and the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury in London.
While MBS told us he’s not yet prepared to allow the building of churches, he added that he and his advisers are carefully studying the issue. He is permitting foreign Christian workers to meet in their homes for worship without police interference, and in December he permitted a Coptic bishop to hold a Christmas mass in Riyadh for the first time.
Serious legal and cultural challenges remain for Christians in the Arab Muslim world. These will take time and wisdom to navigate, much less fix. My point is not to paint a rosy picture, but, rather, to note that Christian leaders throughout the region tell me real progress is being made. They are being invited to meet with Muslim leaders to discuss their problems and explore solutions, and they feel more hopeful than ever.
Given the wholesale slaughter of Christians in the Mideast just a few years ago, one might think such developments would merit front-page coverage.
The writer is a New York Times best-selling author. He is also a dual US-Israeli citizen who lives with his family in Jerusalem.