As Arab Spring falters, ‘open hearts’ find God
LONDON (BP) — Once again the world’s attention is drawn to the Middle East with the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and the tendered resignation of Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.
King Abdullah, who died early Friday (Jan. 23), is succeeded by his brother Salman bin Abdul Aziz.
Both events come at a time when peoples of the Arab nations reflect on the impact of the Arab Spring and the current rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
“The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need for solidarity and cohesion,” the new Saudi king said in an apparent reference to the chaos gripping the Middle East as ISIS now holds a third of both Iraq and Syria.
The fourth anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings arrives with little sign of real change in the Arab world, except for precious signs of God at work amid the chaos.
What began in Tunisia with the self-immolation of a market vendor in December 2010 continued this month with the country’s first free presidential elections and Tunisia being dubbed “country of the year” by The Economist. Freedom has come to Tunisia, which has opened the door for growth — often slow and painful, but with forward impetus.
But Tunisia is the exception.
Some commentators have said what began in Tunisia was broken in Egypt, where the Arab Spring arrived on Jan. 25, 2011. Egyptians have overthrown two governments during the past four years, but there is no hope in sight for a resolution between reformists, hardliners and the Muslim Brotherhood. Armed forces now keep the peace.
But Egypt isn’t the worst.
In Syria, the death toll is 200,000 and growing. Syrian refugees number more than 3 million, causing overcrowding in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. The fanaticism of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has flummoxed even other militant Muslim factions.
Now the Arab Spring has morphed into Arab Winter.
But Christian workers in the Arab world want people to know that neither newfound democracy nor violence and bloodshed are the only stories worth sharing.
“There is another story that is not being told,” said James Keath*, International Mission Board (IMB) strategy leader for work in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Keath recounts examples of Muslim men and women coming to faith in Christ. He also tells of how God has met Arab Christians in their moments of need, providing grace and love and even the ability to forgive those who killed their families.
“The worst humanitarian catastrophe of our day is opening doors among peoples we have never had access to before,” Keath said. “And we are finding not just broken lives but open hearts.”
One example is a Syrian refugee woman caring for her sick mother — penniless, fearful, despairing, without the will to live. She heard the Good News of Jesus from some of His followers who were delivering blankets to the needy. She put her trust in Him saying, “I know Jesus is the only answer. He is the one who can give me peace in my heart and a reason to live.”
Keath and other Christian workers serving throughout North Africa and the Middle East live amid the day-to-day reality of violence and bloodshed, but they are passionate about the reality of God’s love.
“God has not forgotten the Syrians or the Iraqis, whatever the world may think,” Christian worker Don Alan* said.
Alan said stories abound of how the violence and conflict have provided conduits for the Gospel to be shared.
Many refugees are able to hear the Good News for the first time because they were driven out of a country closed to Christian work and into a place where Christians could minister to them.
In some places, violent men are coming to faith and finding that Jesus is the only true way to peace. Women are moved beyond hopelessness to purpose and peace and a desire to share this Good News with family members.
Christian worker Jeb Colburn* has seen similar things in Tunisia.
Colburn feels God created the great freedoms in Tunisia that now allow public discussions about Jesus. Freedom also has enabled the translation and printing of Bible portions into the local, previously non-written dialect. There are now audio versions as well, he said.
At the same time, many are disillusioned with Islam. As one man told Colburn, “There is freedom to be a pious Muslim, but I do not care to be religious because religion has done nothing for me.”
But as these people meet believers and receive Scripture, lives change.
Ahmed* is an elderly Tunisian man who watched Christian programming for many years before approaching a believer who was going into a church building. They visited and then began spending time together. Now they are holding Bible discussion times in the man’s home with his wife and neighbors.
Tunisia is unique in its Arab Spring successes. Ongoing tensions in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan and Bahrain threaten the safety of their citizens and the state of their souls. Throughout much of the region, Christianity is still suppressed, feared and hated.
But God is not silenced.
“This is not the time for fear or drawing back,” Alan said. “As Hebrews 10:36 reminds us, ‘… You have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised.’ Let us not be those who shrink back, for God is at work.”
— Pray for the Arab peoples who need the Prince of Peace and for Christian workers who strive to make Him known.
— Pray for the families of the hundreds of thousands who have died in Arab conflicts in the past four years.
— Pray for Syrian refugees who continue to pour out of their homeland in droves. There are now more than 3 million.
— Pray for Tunisians who have embarked on the path to democracy but are struggling through widespread poverty and 60 percent unemployment of college graduates.
— Pray for Egyptians as their country is still divided. Despite the overthrow of two governments, they now live in a police state because of tension between opposing factions.
Learn More: For more stories that give a Christian perspective on Northern Africa and the Middle East, follow The Gospel Side of the Story.
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