Religious and political leaders came together in Washington at a well-publicized event to advocate for the suffering church in the Middle East. It was a rare display of bipartisanship with about 200 leaders calling for legislation to create a special envoy to the Middle East and urging believers in the United States to pray, give, and advocate on behalf of the persecuted. I signed the statement, too, having witnessed over the years the wholesale oppression—and in some cases destruction—of the church in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq.
In my most recent travels in the Middle East I saw churches whittled to half their size, or less, compared to a decade ago. Violence, kidnappings, and fear have taken their toll on Christian believers—and we in the West have an obligation not to turn from it.
But what if at the same time the church is suffering the church is thriving anew? What if the Mediator of a new covenant, in the business of providing a new and living way for men to come to God (Hebrews 10:20), is building amid the ruins of the ancient church?
A pastor in Beirut, who works in a historically Christian area dotted with Armenian, Catholic, Baptist, and evangelical churches, told me, “What surprises us is seeing God doing something new.” The area is filling with Syrian refugees (story, “Staying alive” in this issue), Christians and Muslims, and he and his congregation are ministering to them. The Muslims, as a result, are coming to church.
“When [the Syrians] came earlier they came to fight us,” he said. “Now they come asking for help, and they are finding open arms. The people who were receiving their rockets and shells are giving them support. So they are touched by the love of Christ.”
In Syria itself, a church in Damascus is “mostly full of women in black head coverings,” one member told me, as Muslims desperate for help are finding it in the church, and coming to hear what else it has to offer.
I attended one such meeting full of about 300 Muslim women who came to receive food parcels. No one forces them to stay, but each week they gravitate to an upper room where they hear careful teaching about the love God has for them.
A pastor in Iraq told me his church is shrinking, “except we are growing when you count the Muslims who are coming to our house gatherings.”
What if in the midst of the church’s “destruction” its destroyers may come to faith? It’s not wishful thinking. Author and researcher David Garrison has studied unreached people groups since 1987. For more than three years he traveled over a quarter million miles to quantify the movement of Muslims to Christ. His new book, A Wind in the House of Islam (2014, WIGTake Resources), documents that movement across nine “rooms” or regions that span the globe.
His dramatic conclusion: Across 29 nations where most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims live, there have been 82 movements to Christianity from Islam, defined as at least 100 new churches or 1,000 baptisms—and 84 percent of them have happened since 2000.
Garrison told me that a number of important trends lead him to believe this century may be the “fullness of time” for Christianity’s inroads in the Muslim world—something that hasn’t happened in the 14 centuries the two religions have contended together.
Among them are better and more numerous translations of both the Bible and the Quran. Saudi Arabia pushed translations of the Quran into all languages and—according to Garrison—the effort has backfired. “The Quran has no plan of salvation and no assurances except that if you die in jihad you will be blessed.” The real-life specter of jihadi terrorism, he and others say, has left many Muslims with deteriorating hope in their own religion.
The topic is dangerous to touch, as threats to those who convert from Islam are real. Many won’t discuss Muslim conversions at all. But understanding that something new is afoot where headlines show a blighted Muslim world may give religious and political leaders better insight, and help us not to shrink in the face of danger.