The Middle East's Faithful Are Breathing Fine
You're right, David Aikman, the story of the church in the Middle East is not well known, although we're in the place where it all began: the Garden of Eden, Abraham's travels, Jesus' home for work and teaching and his crucifixion and resurrection. It's where the first churches formed and grew. From here, the gospel spread to the whole world.
Since then, the fortunes of the churches have indeed been mixed. The conquests of the sixth and seventh centuries made Islam the majority religion in the region today. Relationships between the religions in the Middle East were better in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when cooperation and space were the order of the day. But as you rightly point out, recent history has been much tougher.
You ask us how to best respond. From Middle East Christian Outreach's century and a half of experience as a medium-sized missions agency here, we can think of four avenues.
First, look beyond the statistics. True, there has been numerical decline, and emigration is a constant temptation for Christians here. Life is tough and uncertain, and it would be safer somewhere else. At the same time, some of the churches we work with are growing, engaging their cultures, and sending significant numbers of Arabic-speaking Christians out into the region and the wider world. The largest Protestant church here claims a membership of 8,000, and there are Coptic churches in the 10,000-member bracket. Still, most churches are small look beyond the numbers to the movements.
Second, let our Middle Eastern friends speak for themselves. We are hugely impressed by the quality and thoughtful godliness of the church leaders we meet. Partnerships with local churches, schools, and ministries are indeed possible, and in a number of cases, are flourishing.
Christian schools in Lebanon are able to present the gospel to generations of young people, touching their families, neighbourhoods, and communities; they are hungry for workers, especially those whose first language is English and who are relaxed about working cross-culturally. Church-based networks in Egypt and Jordan are eager to tell us their stories of faithful witness and testimony under pressure, and long for Western churches to stand with them. Iraq is tough, but their arms are wide open to therapists and others who can work with damaged people.
Middle Eastern Christians should also be able to express themselves in their own words as they seek funding. Our friends on the ground say they are really struggling not just with filling the forms in, but also with responding to measures and categories they don't use, such as, "How many people were converted through this ministry this year?" Instead of looking to this kind of measure, they are playing a much longer game, where evangelism and discipleship walk together and where people from majority backgrounds take many years to find a meaningful place in the Christian community.
Third, get involved in mercy and justice advocacy. As Middle Eastern Christians read Scripture, they find that a call to justice is an integral part of the gospel. Their country law codes speak about freedom of faith, but the reality so far is one-way conversions into Islam. To convert any other way is to court rejection, even death. The engagement of friends outside the region is a huge help to our friends, and there are now a number of networks patiently working with individual Christians, churches, and agencies that find themselves under pressure. Links with the West are vital because they show the authorities and the majority community that these Christians are not alone: they are genuinely, unashamedly Middle Eastern, yet connected with others in the fast-growing church in South America, India, China, and Africa.