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Three Years after the Arab Spring

2011 began with high expectations for new freedoms and prosperity across much of the Arab world. Three years on, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and frustration.

Egypt has been through two revolutions, has had a failed experiment with political Islam and is now dealing with a low-level insurgency from recently outlawed members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The economy remains in tatters and elections later this year may take us full circle, back to a president from the military establishment, as the majority of Egyptians seem ready to re-embrace a more totalitarian structure if it means security and a revival in the economy.

Tunisia has also experimented with, and been disappointed by, political Islam, but managed to make mid-course adjustments with less violence.

It remains one of best models of how a Muslim majority country can find the balance between religion and democracy.

Libya has not yet managed to bring together the rebel forces that overthrew Kaddafi and remains divided along ethnic and tribal lines, with much of the country under no central authority.

It has allowed al-Qaida in the Maghreb to gain a foothold in the south and the country could yet become a failed state.

Of all the failures of the Arab Spring, Syria stands out as the greatest tragedy.

More than 7 million people (one in three of the population) have been either internally displaced or are now refugees living in increasingly difficult circumstances in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or northern Iraq.

If this situation is allowed to continue, it could make the Palestinian refugee problem seem like a sideshow.

All of this chaos is not the random outcome of people coming out onto the streets to express their desire for greater personal freedoms and demanding to be treated with dignity.

Behind most of these events are regional agendas and huge amounts of cash being invested in the overthrow of rival regimes.

First, there is the more obvious split between Shi’a and Sunni populations, with Iran on one side and the Gulf States on the other.

It is this rivalry that is aggravating the current conflicts in Iraq, Syria (where the Assad family are Alawite, a sect of Shi’a Islam) and Lebanon.

It is also fuelling social discontent in Bahrain (a Sunni monarchy with a Shi’a majority) and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. 

Second, there are the splits within the Gulf States themselves, with some nations supporting the now ousted Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and others bankrolling the new government.

Third, there are also the broader ideological differences across the region between those who want to see Islam as the primary or only source of law and those who want a more nonsectarian, democratic type of national constitution.

But what has all this meant for the Christians of the Middle East?

First, they have – like many Iraqis, Syrians and Egyptians – been caught up in the conflicts and street violence.

Being a minority with no organized militia, they have often been a soft target for different sides, and have especially suffered from those Islamists who want to see an end to any Christian presence in such countries.

This has fueled the drain of Christians from the region – something that has been going on since the 1950s (and earlier if we want to include the Armenian massacres after World War I).

The number of Christians in Iraq, for instance, has dropped from about 1.2 million at the time Saddam Hussein fell to less that 300,000 today – with many of these being internally displaced.

Some commentators are beginning to wonder if there will be any Christians left in some Arab countries by the end of the next decade.

Second, the political and social turmoil in countries like Egypt, while causing some Christians to flee, has helped focus the resolve of many others; some would even call this a golden age of opportunity for the church.

The recent discrediting of the Muslim Brotherhood and, with it, the concept of political Islam, in Egypt, together with the powerful witness of Egyptian Christians – who surprised many by responding with nonviolence and forgiveness to the terrible attacks on their communities in mid-August 2013 – has obviously caused many Muslims in Egypt to have a new, long and thoughtful look at the Christian faith.

As we have seen in countries like Algeria and Iran, where there have been severe problems for the church, there is often amazing church growth in the wake of such persecution.

The Coptic Church – which itself has suffered greatly during the past 2,000 years, especially under Rome – is often heard reminding its flock that, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

The Christians of the Middle East and North Africa, more than ever, need our ongoing support and prayers.

Terence Ascott is the founder and CEO of SAT-7. A longer version of this article first appeared on Terence’s SAT-7 blog and is used with permission. SAT-7 broadcasts satellite television programming that seeks to transform the Middle East through hope in Jesus Christ and is a partner organization of American Baptist International Ministries and BMS World Mission.