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What Impact Will ISIS Have on Middle East Churches?

I’ve been writing and speaking much about ISIS in recent months, and several important questions still need to be addressed.
What are the long-term implications of ISIS for the church in the Middle East region?

How do we assess the long-term psychological impact of ISIS on the church globally, indeed even on the international community as a whole?

The physical damage that the church and Christians in the Middle East are incurring at the hand of ISIS is fairly quantifiable and obvious.

On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East last May, the Pew Research Center put out a brief analysis of Middle East Christians’ dwindling numbers.

Although the Christian population grew from 1.6 million to 7.5 million (about fourfold) between 1900 and 2010, the period covered by the analysis, the non-Christian population grew 10 times.

Thus, the ratio of Christians in the Middle East shrank to 5 percent from 10 percent during that period.

Factors are many and complex, including a difference in birth rates and spells of persecution and social hostility.

But probably the most significant factor is emigration, which is largely the result of the psychological feeling of being an oppressed minority, a sense of victimhood and the widespread mentality of survival among Arab Christians, with little prospect and hope for the future.

The global church needs to be intentional about not reinforcing this already debilitating psychological sense of being a minority needing to be rescued.

Popular culture tends to applaud the “hero” who comes to the rescue, and the U.S. has traditionally liked to play that role.

But I don’t think this has paid off in the long term, either for those being rescued or for the U.S. itself.

In the case of ISIS, although direct victims will continue to be grateful for very specific and targeted interventions on their behalf by the U.S. military for “protective” purposes, I believe that the problem should otherwise be allowed to remain an Arab and regional problem.

If the West intervenes too heavy-handedly, the ISIS problem will be another missed opportunity for our regional powers to engage in serious introspection and reform.

And I have little doubt that from the ashes of ISIS will emerge a worse monster, and it will return to bite the U.S. and other Western nations.

So, what missional implications ensue from recognition of the long-term impact it will have on the church globally?

Reinforcing the ISIS narrative by accepting the “minoritization” of Christians is, in some ways, no better than marking them, as ISIS has done, with the letter nÅ«n – the first letter in the word nasÄra, which is the name the Quran uses for Christians.

Instead, we should take a long-term and multifaith approach that recognizes that those who love God and view their religion as a source of love and peace toward neighbors represent the majority who can transform the mainstream narrative.

Middle Eastern and global Christians need to recognize that Muslims, for the most part, are our allies in this struggle, not our enemies.

Muslims with whom I have spoken feel the long-term damage of ISIS on Islam more deeply than most.

The long-term solution is to encourage multifaith initiatives that gradually will restore hope for a better future among the youths in societies particularly vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS.

If we can all shoulder some of the responsibility for the flourishing of ISIS, then clearly a satisfactory solution can neither be short-term, nor can it stop at the bombing of some “evil” militants.

Can the church globally start to think of its mission as one of coming alongside local governments and educational institutions?

I am not advocating for some form of neo-colonial interventionism. Because we are sitting on this side of history, the hope is that we might be able to learn from it in order not to repeat mistakes of the past.

What do the new missional forces of our day have to bring to this conversation? What can we learn from the Koreans, the Chinese and the Latinos about government reform, fighting corruption and building accountable institutions?

What can we learn about economic development and entrepreneurship? What can we learn about fighting poverty?

The best victory over ISIS is not one that will simply walk over the dead bodies of disenfranchised young militants.

We will achieve true victory over ISIS when it becomes the reason for a complete overhaul of governments and institutions infested with corruption and repressive policies.

Hope, in which the church can be a key contributor, is the long-term solution that will dry up the recruitment pool of ISIS.

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. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.