The day after allied bombing of Baghdad and other targets in Iraq began, a mob attacked a Protestant church in Algiers. In Magura, Bangladesh, the houses of 13 Bangladeshi Christian families were looted and burned by Muslims in late January. Police there dispersed a mob intent on destroying a Baptist church.

Most Western missionaries have left their Middle Eastern assignments. One worker says the Arab Christians she knows “are concerned for the future, but aren’t afraid.” But with tears she recalled the words of one Arab believer: “If they start killing you because you’re American, they’ll kill us too, because we’re associated with you.”

Arab Christians find themselves caught between a jihad and a “just war.” By embracing the supposed religion of the West, Christians in the Middle East are viewed with suspicion by their Muslim countrymen. Yet they find their homelands at odds with American foreign policy.

The fate of Middle Eastern Christians, say church experts, lies in the extent to which Muslims view the Persian Gulf War as a new Crusade, a Christian West versus Muslim Mideast conflict, and how closely the believers are identified with the West. Though the war has been portrayed on the streets of many cities as a religious confrontation, for the time being, most Muslims see the bombardment of Iraq through the lens of nationalistic, not religious, pride. Historic Muslim-Christian tensions certainly remain, but the anger of the Arab world has been focused primarily on the U.S. and its allies.

Church Growth

The heightened tensions come at a time when the Christian church, a small minority in the land of Islam’s birth, was showing signs of renewed life. In Iraq itself, prior to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, churches were growing. One Protestant congregation in Baghdad jumped from 30 to 600 in attendance last year, missions officials in Cyprus report. “Tens of thousands” of Scriptures were brought into the country in recent years, prompting increasing interest in biblical Christianity among Muslims as well as traditional Christian groups.

Christians in Iraq have actually enjoyed relative freedom to worship under Hussein. His ruling Baath party, basically secular in its outlook, tolerated the estimated 500,000 Christians in Iraq (about 3 percent of the population). Some Christians in Iraq and other countries viewed Hussein favorably, because of his efforts to redistribute oil wealth to poorer Muslim areas.

Churches in Jordan, whose government is now supportive of Iraq, have also enjoyed religious freedom. There, churches continue to grow as they minister to refugees fleeing Iraq and Kuwait. (By contrast, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where Islam is the state religion, were among the most repressive toward Christianity.)

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Government policies aside, the Gulf War is sure to bring greater social pressure against Christians. “One of the long-standing problems for the church in the Middle East is the hemorrhaging of its believers to other countries,” says Howard Norrish of Operation Mobilization. “The increased tensions exacerbate the problem,” he says, adding that the departure of Western Christian workers only encourages the departure of Arab believers as well.

The Christians’ concerns are not without grounds. Anti-Christian violence has flared many times. Iraqi Christians well remember the early seventies, when 13 Protestant pastors were executed in a wave of anti-Christian persecution. In the 1930s, some 300 Assyrian Christians were massacred by an Iraqi general for their collaboration with the British.

Prayers For Power

While the future seems to hold little promise for Christians living in the Middle East, the tested-by-fire faith of many believers foresees something greater than mere survival. One church leader in Lebanon, Norrish recounts, told him that for 15 years he and others had prayed for peace in their country, but to no avail. But last year, they began to pray for power, and almost immediately the Lord answered as the church there began to evangelize boldly and grow.

Norrish believes the same will happen in the Gulf region. “Believers in the Arab world were unhappy with the status quo. They certainly didn’t pray for war, but they do not want peace if that means going back to the way things were August 1, 1990,” he says. “They sense that behind these things, as terrible as they are, God is moving. And they hope that when the dust settles after the war there will be greater freedom for Christians to spread the gospel in the Arab world. They pray that they will stay strong and active as Christian witnesses to the Muslim majority.”

Terror And Hone In Israel

Standing on the roof of his Christian school in the Galilee last month, Fr. Elias Chacour had an uncomfortably close vantage point in the Persian Gulf War. The Melkite priest recounts seeing an Iraqi Scud missile streak across the Israeli sky, and watching with relief as it was intercepted by an American Patriot missile. Fragments from destroyed Scuds have fallen as close as two kilometers from his school.

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Since the second day of the war, when Saddam Hussein fired the first missiles at Israel, the sound of air-raid sirens has prompted the now-familiar ritual of donning gas masks and hurrying to sealed-off rooms. But air-raid sirens have not yet been installed in most Arab areas, Chacour says, leaving the Palestinians to rely on radio reports and word of mouth for missile warnings.

Like all Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship, Chacour is eligible to receive a gas mask from the government. Yet he has refused one as an expression of solidarity with his Palestinian brothers and sisters in the Occupied Territories, who, despite an Israeli Supreme Court order, have not yet received the masks.

The situation has produced deep fears in his community. Chacour’s school, portions of which have been sealed off against possible chemical attack, has been closed much of the time. In pastoral visits, he spends much of his time trying to address the fears of the children. “When they see their fathers and mothers with gas masks, it is horrible for them,” he says. “We pray that no more Scud missiles will fall on Israel.”

Yet, in the midst of the fear, Chacour has found reason for hope. “Together with our Jewish brothers and sisters, we have shared this fear of chemical war and the Scuds,” he says. “For the first time, there is an opportunity for the Jews in Israel to realize that their security can no longer be any narrow buffer zone, but only … in building friendly relationships with their partners in the plight, the Palestinians.”

Small steps of reconciliation have already occurred. When the Scuds first started flying, Chacour and other Palestinians, both Christian and Muslim, invited Jewish families from Tel Aviv to come and stay with them in hopes that the Arab areas would not be targeted by Hussein. Many Jewish families accepted the offer.

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