Christian Mission in the Wake of the Arab Spring

By Sabra, George F. | International Bulletin of Mission Research, July 2014 | Go to article overview

Christian Mission in the Wake of the Arab Spring


Sabra, George F., International Bulletin of Mission Research


As a Christian and as a citizen of a Middle Eastern country, I write here about the plight--and hope--of Middle Eastern Christians in the wake of the Arab Spring, which has engulfed and roiled the region. I present my concerns in four steps: (1) the situation of Middle East Christians, (2) the nature of the so-called Arab Spring, (3) religion as the key to understanding the Middle East, and (4) the focus needed for Christian mission in the Middle East today. (1)

The Christian Presence in the Middle East

Christian communities in many countries of the Middle East are suffering from decline in numbers because of emigration, low birth rates, and, in some places, persecution. In many countries there is actual (if not also legal) discrimination and marginalization.

When one looks at the present physical and statistical situation of Middle Eastern Christians and traces the developments that brought about this situation, one has to admit that on this level the picture looks bleak. The dramatic change in numbers is alarming. A glance at the historical development shows that at the end of the Crusader era in the late thirteenth century and as a result of severe persecution and arbitrary and cruel treatment of the Christians of the region at the hand of one Islamic dynasty in particular, the Mamluks, the Christians of the Near East started to decrease rapidly in numbers and influence in society.

When the Ottoman Empire took over the lands of the Fertile Crescent and Egypt in the early part of the sixteenth century, Christians constituted about 6-7 percent of the total population of the region. The Ottoman period, which lasted for 400 years, until the early twentieth century, was a period of stability for Christian communities. The Ottomans officially recognized the various Christian confessions, gave them a certain measure of autonomy, and provided them with state protection. In 1914, toward the end of the Ottoman period and on the eve of World War I, Christians in the Near East constituted about 20-25 percent of the total population.

Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christians in the Fertile Crescent and Egypt have seen their numbers return to only 6-7 percent of the total population of the region. (2) There are many reasons for this decline, the most important among them being the significantly lower birthrate of Christians and the widespread and continuous emigration of Christians. Sociologists have shown that since the middle of the nineteenth century, one-third of all Middle Eastern Christians have left the region, going mainly to the West.

The Arab Spring

The future does not look bright, given the facts of the past and the recent present. But what about the so-called Arab Spring, the major upheaval that began in December 2010 and is still taking place in some Arab countries today? Does it promise anything different and better for the Christians of the region?

Clearly something major, unique, and exciting has been happening in the Arab world today. Protests, demonstrations, and uprisings in many Arab countries are demanding real change. Three aspects of these protest movements have a potential impact on the Christians of the region.

First, the uprisings and protests have been everywhere primarily calling for democratic changes, for freedom, for the overthrow of dictatorships and political repression. The Arab peoples in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and other countries want freedom from state repression--they want to breathe! Of course, they all denounce corruption and have social demands, but they consider these to be the outcome of repression and dictatorship and lack of democracy. The main cry, therefore, is for freedom, not bread; for democracy and human rights before anything else. This call for freedom and democracy was quite significant and promised a positive outlook for all people there, but especially minorities, including the Christians of each country. …

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