One year later, Christians are still assessing the Gulf War’s impact on religious life.

During the dark days just prior to February 26, 1991, when the Persian Gulf war came to an end, Oshagan Choloyan, prelate of the Armenian Apostolic Church of Kuwait, kept his church open 24 hours a day. The Armenian expatriates living in Kuwait came eagerly and often for prayer and the liturgy, he says, because they had little else to cling to. “It was a time you could find nothing in Kuwait—no food, no water, no electricity, nothing.”

Today, nearly one year after Kuwait’s “Day of Liberation” from Iraqi occupation, Choloyan says that spiritual eagerness has not faded, although life in Kuwait has become very different. He believes “the Gulf War was the test of fire,” but he admits he is still unsure about its ultimate results.

Throughout the region, churches and international mission agencies continue to assess the impact the Persian Gulf War will have on Christian life and witness in the Middle East. “For most Americans, the war was over when their people came home,” says a church worker based in the Gulf states. “For those of us who live here, it is very much still a part of our lives.”

Positive Reception

Following the war’s disruption, ministry is resuming in most areas. Virtually all the missionaries who were evacuated have returned to their posts. Gerry Volkart, Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board associate area director for the Middle East and North Africa, says all but one of her group’s 165 representatives are back in the region. According to Volkart, the returning workers have not encountered the strong anti-Western sentiment many had feared a year ago when they left (CT, Mar. 11, 1991, p. 55). “It has been a lot more positive than they anticipated,” she says.

Indeed, many agencies are reporting new opportunities for Christian ministry that came both directly and indirectly as a result of the war. One of the biggest has been relief efforts for its victims. Early last year many Christian agencies, working through Jordanian churches, sent help to the thousands of international refugees evacuating Kuwait. Christian groups have also aidedre fugees in camps in Turkey, Iran, and in the remote areas of eastern Iraq, where some unconfirmed reports of strong Muslim interest in Jesus Christ have reached Western groups. The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) sent a series of relief convoys into Baghdad following the war and distributed hundreds of tons of food and medicine through Iraqi churches.

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Jordanian Christians have been especially active in Iraq. “The war opened people’s hearts to the gospel,” says Brother Habib, a Jordanian church leader and Bible distributor. Habib, along with several Jordanian evangelical churches and Western organizations, has launched “Operation Desert Spring,” a project to ship tens of thousands of Bibles into Iraq. In November, the Evangelical Church of the Christian Alliance in Jordan spearheaded the distribution of 35 tons of Bibles there.

Asking Questions

Perhaps the most surprising new openings have been in the tightly closed Islamic society of Kuwait, where Christian churches are allowed only for the international workers living there. Before the war, any interaction between Kuwaiti Muslims and international Christians outside the workplace was strongly discouraged. However, Christians in Kuwait say that during the conflict, much of that was put aside. Choloyan’s Armenian church and the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait City distributed food, both to their own congregations and to their Muslim neighbors. When allied troops departed from Kuwait, they left extra army meals with the National Evangelical Church, which passed out Bibles along with the food. According to one church member, when the meals were gone, people still came to get Bibles.

A senior Arab worker from Youth With a Mission (YWAM) says that since the war, Kuwaiti Muslims have been asking questions about their own faith and about Christianity. “The average Kuwaiti’s problem is ‘Why are Christians always portrayed as immoral and selfish [by a Muslim leader], when they stood with him in his time of trouble against other Arab Muslims?’ ” the YWAM worker explains. “The openness after the Gulf War is something we’ve been praying for for years.”

Still, Choloyan warns Christians not to count the Muslim fundamentalist movement dead in Kuwait. “We have to be very prudent not to misuse the openness of the Muslims to the Christians,” he says. “We must be careful … in order to keep our identity and survive in that part of the world.”

Earlier this year, the Associated Press reported that social liberties brought to Saudi Arabia by the U.S.—led troops were “triggering a backlash by the cane-wielding 3 religious police, the Mutawa, against what they see as a war-induced drift from Islamic values.” Muslim fundamentalists have also been gaining power in other African nations.

Conflicting Evidence

Experts say it may still be too early to tell what effect the war had on Christian-Muslim relationships overall. In Egypt, for instance, there has been conflicting evidence. Samuel Habib, president of the Coptic Evangelical Synod, tells CHRISTIANITY TODAY that in many ways, the war helped relations between the two groups. “Muslims and Christians worked together during the Gulf War. Both supported the coalition fighting,” he says. Yet, in September, a riot broke out between the two groups, and two evangelical churches were attacked.

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Many Arab Christians say they remain uncomfortable with U.S. actions during the war. “The U.S. rushed into the region like a Crusade,” says Palestinian Anglican Canon NaimAteek, who reports bitterness among Palestinian Christians and Muslims that the U.S. has not intervened so quickly and forcefully in their plight.

Gabriel Habib, executive director of the MECC, says a sense of vulnerability lingers over the entire region. “The U.S. has emerged as the only power to arrange the order of the Middle East,” he says. “The question many of the churches still have is whether the U.S.A.’s New World Order is in harmony with or in contradiction to what we see as God’s order.”

Robert Douglas, executive director of the Zwemer Institute for Muslim Studies, believes much of the situation is still evolving. “One year later, there still is about as much lack of clarity as there was last February,” he says. “Saddam Hussein is still in power; Iran is rearming at an incredible rate, … and there has not been a great leap forward in the creation of democratic institutions.” But despite the ambiguities, Douglas says he is sure of one thing: “God is at work in the midst of all of this.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

Rebuilding, But Forgotten

The bombardment has ceased along Lebanon’s Mediterranean shores, gunfire no longer echoes in the streets of Beirut, and the Lebanese people are digging out from under the rubble of 16 years of civil war.

With the release of the last living American hostage, Terry Anderson, many Americans closed the chapter on Lebanon. But as that nation continues to search for lasting peace and stability, Lebanese Christians believe they need the support of their American counterparts now more than ever. “We feel sometimes neglected by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world,” says Lucien Accad, general secretary of the United Bible Society of Lebanon.

The church was long in the center of the violence during the war (CT, Nov. 5, 1990, p. 41). And despite being badly battered, the church hopes to be at the center of the nation’s recovery as well. Many say the signs on that front during 1991 were encouraging. For example, the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) held its annual regional resource planning meeting in Lebanon, the first international church gathering to be held there since 1980. A major part of the meeting included discussion about the rehabilitation of Lebanon’s shattered infrastructure.

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“The war destroyed everything,” says Maud Nahhas, a renewal worker in the Orthodox Church of Antioch. In response, the MECC and several religiously oriented relief-and-development groups have launched a series of rebuilding projects.

Evangelistic work went on as well. Accad says the war provided a unique opportunity for the distribution of Scriptures. He is excited about a new, modern Arabic Bible due out this year. Youth for Christ—Lebanon (YFC) sponsored two successful youth retreats and inaugurated a 50-member youth choir that traveled around the country. YFC executive director John Sagherian had the opportunity to speak at several school assemblies, some that included students of Muslim background. “In spite of everything, it was a good year for us,” he says. Many evangelical pastors are reporting new openings for the gospel, the establishment of prayer groups, and even small pockets of revival.

Still, daunting challenges remain. The hemorrhage of educated Christians emigrating to the West has resulted in many undersized congregations and a deep leadership vacuum (CT, Nov. 11, 1991, p. 47). Those who stay face the continuing hardships of daily life: electricity still goes on and off at random; water is in short supply; telephones rarely work. In addition, according to Armenian Evangelical Church director Megrdich Karagoezian, churches are increasingly being called upon to address societal problems, such as unemployment and a housing shortage. Given the churches’ own lack of finances and expertise, “We’re in a situation where we cannot help our own people,” he says.

Reconciliation remains a key issue as well. Much of the fighting was not only between Christians and Muslims, but among different Christian groups as well. “We’re hoping for real reconciliation, but 16 years of war is not easy to remove from the memory,” says Accad.

However, perhaps the biggest challenge for the church is the nagging fear that true peace has not yet come to Lebanon. Most Christians are uneasy about the dominance of Syrian troops, whose occupation effectively ended the civil war. “We have the absence of fighting, but at the expense of freedom,” says one Lebanese Christian, who believes the U.S. sacrificed his nation to Syria. “Why did America go to the rescue of Kuwait so fast and not Lebanon?” he asks.

Whatever the outcome, Sagherian says there will be a core of Christians committed to the future of Lebanon. “We still have a mission to our nation,” he says. “We understand it to be the will of God for us, and that is why we are strong.”

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