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3 Opportunities for Churches in Middle East, North Africa

Hamas’ shift from its allegiance to the Syrian regime back to its ideological roots in the Muslim Brotherhood is setting new priorities in the regional politics of the Middle East and North Africa region.
I’ve set forth the historical and political factors contributing to this shift in a previous column that is available here.

The shift is redefining Sunni-Shi’i relations – forcing each of the emerging sectarian blocs to re-examine its motivations, core values and strategic priorities – and is bringing about the “coming of age” and “transformation” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

So what future is there for the church and for Christians in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in this emerging environment?

Though much can be said on the subject, I want to focus on three emerging opportunities.

First, there is no doubt that Christians in the region had often been allies of the old dictatorships, which were generally protective of minorities. And how could we blame them for receiving such favors gratefully, given a long history of marginalization.

The danger, however, is that emerging powers will view Christians as a part of “the old,” which they have vowed to get rid of once and for all.

It is crucial at this stage that the church of the MENA region avoid taking political sides – not out of fear from erring on the wrong side, but in an effort to recover its “prophetic” voice.

Individual Christians should, of course, as all fellow citizens, be free to choose their political positions and even actively be involved in political life. But may the official church learn never to take partisan political positions again.

During these grave and tragic times, where so many people are losing loved ones and all means of subsistence, Christians should be primarily concerned with addressing the human plight of all, in very practical ways, regardless of political or sectarian affiliation.

As the church seeks to provide food, clothing, refuge, emotional and psychological support to all who need it while at the same time calling for dialogue, peace and reconciliation, Christians will be repositioning themselves as indispensable elements of their countries’ future rather than a vestige of the outgoing past.

Second, the church in the region has often suffered from a debilitating minority complex, which has caused it to survive rather than thrive.

Even if the dhimmi status was meant to offer minority religious groups under Islam a position of protection and some degree of religious freedom, it nevertheless reduced them to second-class citizens within Muslim societies for centuries.

We have accepted the embrace of an unhealthy insular culture of self-protection and survival, which is quite contrary to Christ’s calling that we be “salt and light” that transforms the nature and shape of our societies.

It is time for the church in the MENA region to shake away those webs of fear and timidity. The Spirit of God is at work in societies that are hungry for something new and different.

May he cause us to fall in love with our neighbor so that we become powerful agents of change, reconciliation and transformation.

Third, Christians in the region are generally scared of what will happen to them as Islamist movements rise up and take more political power. Such fears are certainly justified.

If it is viewed as part of “the old,” then why should the church be treated any different from the outgoing dictators. The key here is perseverance and patience as we explore new ways of dialogue and partnership with the emerging realities.

I would venture that the emerging “religious” political powers are more promising dialogue partners for the church than the old dictatorial – largely socialist and nationalist – regimes.

There will be fanatics. But there will also be more egalitarian, democratic, genuine partners among the Islamists of the 21st century.

If we can come out of our own cocoons and prepare ourselves emotionally, intellectually and spiritually, I have no doubt that there are new and exciting opportunities lying ahead for the church in this region.

At the turn of the 20th century, the MENA region transitioned out of the colonial era and most emerging nation-states slipped into decades of monarchical rule, where citizens were largely treated as children. These rulers were little more than an extension of their previous colonial masters.

The region then witnessed a wave of military takeovers, a sort of pre-adolescent rebellion, with revolutionary officers setting up no less paternalistic dictatorships in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

I believe that what we are witnessing today through the Arab uprisings is the transition into adolescence. The phase is inevitable, but it is experimental and likely turbulent.

The people movements of Bourguiba Avenue, Tahrir Square, Benghazi, Daraa and Damascus are unlikely to revert to childhood and to accept authoritarianism once again. But the transition into adulthood is likely to be long-winded and painful.

It is going to be up to us, as members of Jesus’ transformative movement, whether we contribute positively, actively and passionately in the emergence of new adult societies in our region.

And the way we act and live out our calling today will determine whether we emerge as marginal or as part of the core in 30, 40 or 50 years from now.

Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A longer version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. Martin’s earlier reflections on the historical and political factors contributing to the Syrian crisis can be found here.