Growing pains for Arab evangelical Christians in the Middle East

(RNS) – It may surprise many who think the Middle East is an island of Israeli Jews surrounded by Muslims that in many Arab states evangelical Christians are growing in number and power. At the same time, this minority is under pressure, both from the Muslim majority and from other Christians.

A meeting from 26 to 28 September from National Evangelical Councils of the Middle East and North Africa, which was held at the Ajloun Baptist Center north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, was the most representative event since the establishment in 2018 of MENA, the new regional branch of the World Evangelical Alliance. Among the delegates were senior leaders serving some 600 million evangelicals across the region. The Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance, Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher, was present from Germany.

News from individual delegates was mixed. Bassem Fekry, a representative of the Egyptian Fellowship, said Christians in his country – around 20 million in total, according to Fekry, of whom around 3 million are Evangelicals – have received a boost from President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi , which has begun a process to officially recognize church buildings as sacred spaces — a designation not everyone likes. Fekry is helping about 1,500 churches make adjustments to receive coveted government recognition.

Reverend Ghassan Audish, representing the Council of Evangelical Churches of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, boasted that there were 14 churches for Kurdish Christians. Thanks to the efforts of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who changed the Ministry of Islamic Affairs to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, eight different religions are recognized in the region.

But the Reverend Maher Fouad, president of the Union of Evangelical Churches in Iraq, told his fellow evangelicals that the Iraqi government had refused recognition to Baghdad’s small evangelical community of 5,000 souls. Iraqi officials, pushed by traditional religious leaders, describe evangelicals as “a danger to Iraqi national security”. Eight evangelical churches in the city are threatened with closure. Fouad added that since the US-led invasion in 2003, 2 million Iraqi Christians have left their country.

But even the exile of many Arab Christians from Iraq and elsewhere has caused the opening of new places for Arab evangelicals. In Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, government leaders are allowing evangelical refugees from more restrictive countries to meet and worship. Arab communities in Europe thrive for the same reason.

A number of governments in Arab countries have refused to fully recognize evangelical churches largely because historic Eastern Christian churches oppose it for fear that evangelical churches will attract their members.

Bishop Thomas Schirrmacher addresses participants during a meeting of the National Evangelical Councils of the Middle East and North Africa, held September 26-28, 2022, at the Ajloun Baptist Center, north of the Jordanian capital, Amman. Photo by Issa Dahdal

Schirrmacher, whose wife is a professor of Arabic studies, told delegates he had a “special love for the Middle East, for the Muslim world, for Arabic speakers.” While conceding that differences between Christians are particularly felt in the Middle East, he called for unity and referred to friction as family feuds. He also pointed out that it was evangelical Christians who tried to overcome European divisions after the Protestant Reformation. “Our ancestors placed Jesus and the gospel above theology,” he said.

Overall, the meeting, including visits from senior evangelical leaders, was celebrated as a reflection of a growing movement that is gaining discipline as an organization. Evangelicals are still seen as the youngest of the bloc in the Middle East, and many see themselves as a continuation of the work of the early apostles, who planted churches whose remains are being unearthed every day in the region.

If there has been pressure on evangelicals from local governments, it has contributed to this cooperation, leaving only the question of whether national governments will accept that evangelicals in the Arab region are here to stay.

(Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian Christian journalist and member of the Amman Baptist Church. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Barry F. Howard