A shaking is taking place in the Muslim world with tectonic rumblings. Signs are early and evidence is anecdotal, yet stories abound and are persuasive. The unsettling of entrenched Islamic faith is making its way into places and with people we assumed were closed to conversations about the Christian faith.
Returning from the Middle East, a journey I've made regularly in the past few years, I spoke with those engaged in Christian witness about some possibilities they would not have verbalized twelve months ago. I begin with a story from meeting with Syrian refugees on the Lebanese side of the border.
A worn, gnarled hand gently stroked the bruised face of her two-year-old granddaughter whose front teeth had been broken and face scraped by a serious fall. I sat next to them in their scrabbled together shack in a Syrian refugee camp in the Beqaa Valley, just over the mountains from Syria. The life of "Fadwa" had been shattered first by her husband having been taken prisoner in Syria. Then her daughter died in childbirth because Syrian soldiers at a checkpoint refused to let her go to the hospital in time. Then to stay alive Fadwa was forced to flee from her home in Lebanon and walk three days over the mountains. Today she cares for five adults and six children in a makeshift abode, the main room curtained off from the sleeping room.
Fadwa's eyes, sad with flashes of a fiery spirit, told me of her loneliness for her home, her husband and country. But then she smiled as she looked over at Tony, my guide who works with Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese-based mission. Each month their crews bring a bag of food staples to her and 2,400 other families. Some of her grandchildren attend a school run by the mission. Small wonder she welcomed us with such warmth. As we were about to leave, I asked, "Could I pray?" "Oh. yes, I want to know about your Jesus. You see, only Christians are helping us. Some people of our religion come with food but want money for it. You Christians help us without asking anything in return."
It is within war-weary communities that intra-Islamic battles wreak havoc on neighborhoods: in just four years 200,000 have been killed in Syria alone. This along with unspeakable atrocities is having a profound effect among Muslims, causing many to doubt their faith and open their hearts to learn of Christ.
In Egypt I met with national leaders gathering from Morocco, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Syria and Yemen, each saying what they wouldn't have imagined even a year earlier. Muslim openness to engage in conversation about Christian faith became especially noticeable when ISIS began its beheading in early 2014. The seismic shock of the brutality rippled as they beheaded Americans, British, Jordanians, Egyptians and Ethiopians. In northern Iraq a small religious group, the Yazidis, were attacked and forced to flee over mountains, many of them dying without food and water. As ISIS—a cousin of Al-Qaida—rolled into areas populated by Eastern Orthodox Christians, their ultimatum was "Convert or die." Thousands died. The region already meagerly populated by Christians was practically wiped out.
As public beheadings have become a recruitment tool for young people to volunteer, many Muslims are revolted by the vicious murdering by ISIS. This is especially true as they are forced to admit the connection to their Islamic faith, even though a few Western leaders go out of their way to avoid such connection. As Muslims become more unsettled, many question the nature of their faith. A Cairo university professor noted large numbers of Egyptian young people, horrified by this Islamic profile, have become agnostic, saying if this is what their faith is about, they want nothing to do with it.
Following the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians, the Bible Society printed a tract providing Bible verses, speaking of forgiveness and Christ's love. Over 1.6 million immediately hit the streets. A Muslim teacher showed it to her Christian colleague and then asked, "Please give it back, it's the only one I have and I want to show it to others."
The public media is fixated on the outspoken forgiveness of Egyptian parents whose young people had been beheaded in Libya. Coming on television they said they forgive those who killed heir sons and pray for them. The media played their messages again and again.
One pastor said that it's common now to see Muslim women in their hijab visiting church services and asking for a Bible. In a recent baptismal service in Beirut church of sixty, twelve were baptized, eleven of them recent converts.
In Cairo I watched a public television debate between two Islamic scholars and a layperson arguing over the legitimacy of parts of Islam. This debate was triggered by violence unleashed by ISIS and its associates, promoting public conversation which even months ago would not have been allowed.
Some dominant themes are emerging: first, a breaking of fear that to talk about the Christian faith to another will get you in trouble. Second, a commonly heard line; "I thought Christians were our enemies, but your loving response to these killings help me see you aren't our enemies but our friends." Third is the impact food and medical relief have on a family with nothing, when they are frightened and without hope. The physical, medical and social help pouring in from Christian agencies to the 1.5 million Syrians and Iraqis living in Lebanon can't be measured. These agencies don't just provide blankets and tents, but return week after week, bringing food, medicine, and in some places setting up schools.
There is another element unique among Muslims, with stories told everywhere of people having dreams, visions or encounters with heavenly agents. Mostly ignored by the West, in the Muslim world these dreams are taken seriously. And if you want to see some biblical antecedents, flip through a concordance and thread your way through the many texts, or just read Acts 10. Today Muslims in all walks of life are told in their dreams where to go and who to look for. With specific descriptions of persons, actual locations, and times, their dreams reveal how and where they can learn the truth about Jesus. These are not oddball mission stories to evoke unrealistic expectation of the Holy Spirit at work. They are real and are happening with increased frequency.
Where is this all leading? The shift in Islam is in its early stages. How far this will unsettle the status quo of religious intolerance or resistance no one knows. What it does call for is intense prayer for the Spirit to unleash the loving presence of Jesus throughout the world. Pray for those at work in risky places, many of them making untold sacrifices.
The barbaric killings have no saving virtue. They are horrific, violating everything we know as human. As Christians there is no wiggle room to excuse them with, "It may turn out for the good." We deplore their atrocities and call for action and protection. Even so, within the economy of the Kingdom, social and human abuse is not lost on the intent and ways of God. The famous words from Tertullian, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," may not always be true. The massacre and genocide of Armenian Christians in the last century wiped out the church in Turkey. Even so, there are times and places in which the witness of Christ rises above such brutality and boomerangs on those who hate Christ. Indeed, this may become such a time.
As you read of tragedies in the Middle East, stop what you are doing and ask the Spirit to continue to open minds and hearts to the loving presence of the risen Lord.