Two Middle East nations share a city named Tripoli.
They share little else, apart from a Phoenician heritage and mutually near-unintelligible dialects of Arabic. One of their starkest contrasts concerns freedom of religion.
Libya arrested six Christians earlier this month for proselytizing after converting from Islam. Lebanon, despite its sectarianism enshrined in politics, allows free movement between religions.
Libya’s Tripoli was commemorated in the official hymn of the US Marines in homage to American intervention on the shores of North Africa. Lebanon’s was an outpost of an eastern Mediterranean–focused American missionary movement that transformed society through gender-inclusive education.
The Italians colonized Libya; the French, Lebanon. Elsewhere, the Middle East is marked by British influence, Ottoman traditions, petrodollar economies, democratic structures, multicultural kingdoms, autocratic republics, and everything in between.
What unites them all is the preponderance of Islam.
But among the followers of Muhammad there is also difference. Some nations are secular; others enforce sharia. Some protect Christian minorities; others discriminate against them. It is difficult to offer a sweeping synopsis—or uniform lessons learned by local Christians.
Yet CT asked four Arab Christian leaders with deep roots in the region to make an attempt. Two currently live abroad; two live in their nation of origin. Yet each represents a space on the spectrum of strategies on how to best live as a Christian in a Muslim society.
One articulation of the spectrum, crafted by theologian Martin Accad, arranges common Christian responses into five categories: syncretistic (the blurring of faiths), existential (the dialogue of diversity), kerygmatic (the preaching of the apostles), apologetic (the defense of the gospel), and polemical (the interrogation of Islam).
The leaders engaged below were not asked to sort themselves accordingly, nor does this landscape article seek to label them. But each was asked the following question:
Whether in a context of oppression or embrace, how should believers in Jesus witness to their faith, keep social peace, and maintain unity with fellow Christians?
Accad is an associate professor at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary and the Near East School of Theology in Lebanon. He founded Action Research Associates, focusing on national reconciliation, political change, and a multiple-narratives approach to Lebanon’s history.
Over my past 20 years of involvement in Christian-Muslim relations, I have advocated for a “kerygmatic” posture of dialogue that avoids the temptations of universalism and polemics. Seeking to imitate the preaching of the early apostles, its emphasis is on joyful proclamation in line with the missio dei.
The kerygmatic approach is “supra-religious and Christ-centered.”
As we bear witness to the gospel and invite all into relationship with God through Christ, we do not promote Christianity at the expense of Islam or any other religion. Jesus took a critical stance toward Judaism’s religious symbols, such as the Sabbath, Mosaic Law, and the temple. Even as he was recognized as a rabbi, teacher, and leader of Judaism, any harsh words Jesus spoke were addressed to his peers within the faith, never to those whom the religious institution considered unclean, outcasts, or sinners.
These prophetic acts and attitudes should be our model as we position ourselves toward all religions, including our own. Religions are useful only insofar as they serve the poor and advance justice in our societies. When they become mere vehicles of self-perpetuation, they cease to be of God. We, alongside all with whom we journey on this earth, are called to a path of discipleship with Jesus—becoming more like him—not of conversion to any religion.
The kerygmatic approach is “respectful and loving.”
Our respect for others is steeped in our common humanity, as women and men created in the image of God. And we love all because God created and loves us all. Exhibited toward Muslims, we recognize Islam as a dynamic worldview that manifests itself through a dizzying number of forms and a diversity of manifestations in constant transformation over history and geography.
This is the reality of Christianity and other religions as well.
We do not hold our Muslim neighbor responsible for the hateful acts of any of their coreligionists, nor do we consider an extremist as a spokesperson for the sect to which they claim belonging. Our neighbors, regardless of their religious affiliations, are all potential partners in our quest to live at peace with everyone and to work together for the common good of our societies.
The kerygmatic approach is “prophetic and scientifically honest.”
We are disciples of Jesus who seek to develop understandings and behaviors that are aligned with those of our master, and we invite others on this journey as well. But we do not turn a blind eye to the horrors perpetuated by religious people, both now and in the past, whether from our own or from other socioreligious groups. We take a prophetically critical stance toward such acts, examining critically the religious and nonreligious foundations of all ideologies.
In the past, evangelicals have often been known for their rejection of interfaith dialogue. During the age of the great Western missionary movements, we have been taught to hold staunchly to the primacy of evangelism and conversion. But the world has changed dramatically, as war, migration, and evolving social networks have created a new reality. We now live in unprecedented multireligious and multicultural closeness, in communities often prone to division and conflict.
It is our duty as disciples of Jesus to rethink how we live and work together, faithful to the gospel and committed to human harmony. The kerygmatic approach is meant to address such emerging concerns.
Awad is a Syrian American systematic theologian and historian of interreligious thought. Currently an associate researcher at Bonn University in Germany, he formerly directed the PhD program in Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
The answer to this question is highly contextual, not a recipe-like manual that all Christians can mechanically use. But for many, “living one’s faith” means expressing the values of the gospel on a daily basis in both public and private life, as Paul modeled to the Romans and the Philippians. But to be clear, this is not a promotional strategy to market one’s belief, as if it is the best religious merchandise out there.
I invoke this metaphor because I believe many Christians around the world manifest their faith in God’s redemptive revelation in Jesus Christ in these terms. While it might be functional elsewhere, this “living faith” approach does not work in the Middle East.
Here, many Christians follow a pattern of coexistence that is either centered on proselytization or on confrontation. In the first, they aspire to make others become like themselves in a circle of belief. In the second, they are occupied with survival and self-defense. They live as if the other is a “threat to my existence,” rather than “my partner in existence.”
The better approach is to interrelate and symbiotically reciprocate life with other religious believers. The history of the Middle East demonstrates that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all belong existentially, historically, culturally, anthropologically, sociologically, and religiously to the same life setting.
They share the same destiny.
For this symbiosis to succeed, relationship must precede dialogue. In fact, it underpins it as the necessary precondition. To see dialogue as an end result gets things backwards, while using it as a pragmatic tool for evangelism turns it into an arena of intellectual and dogmatic arm-wrestling.
And despite common assumptions, Christians are not a primary target.
Far more Muslims have died and been displaced by regional terrorism, while autocracy and sectarianism encumbers them all. It is counterproductive to imagine a grand religious war. In fact, Muslims and Christians suffer together from the political manipulation of religion, regardless of the faith.
Proper manifestation of Jesus Christ’s mission comes through sharing the fruits of the Holy Spirit with everyone, regardless of their belief. This involves loving the other instead of being fearful; rejoicing in a life of peace instead of being skeptical. Let us remember that Jesus’ main ministry was not about creating a new faith or calling people out of Judaism into a new, so-called “Christianity.” Jesus lived, ministered, died, and rose from the dead—all while belonging to the same Jewish system of belief as those around him.
Therefore, I invite the Christians in the Middle East to appreciate their Muslim compatriots’ system of belief as if Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, is already present and active through God’s mysterious and unfathomable revelatory work. The spirit blows where it pleases, including in them and in their faith. Christians, then, can follow their Lord and Savior in deep relation to Muslims in hope that they are already God’s children.
Ibrahim is director of al-Hayat Ministries, broadcasting Christian programming over satellite television to the Muslim world since 2003. Born in Jerusalem to a secular Arab Muslim family, he currently resides in Finland.
If Christians in Muslim societies wants to share their faith, the reality is that they absolutely can do it—just don’t come close to Islam. So what you see are faithful believers who resemble a cat circling hot meat, being indirect and saying nothing that would risk offending their neighbors. This comes from fear, for if they were to say on the street that Muhammad is not a prophet—it might work once or twice, but then result in beheading. Islam is a violent religion.
I don’t condemn them; in their position I don’t know what I would do.
Some Christians therefore resort to good works—winning favor and perhaps hoping Muslims might ask them questions about their faith. But Jesus never started with a social project; his miracles served to support his spoken message.
When questions come, Christians are already adept at apologetics. Muslims have criticized the Bible and everything about us for the last 1,400 years, and in defending your faith you learn the right answers. But this cannot be all we do.
Within the context of friendship—and media—polemics can be appropriate. Muslim critiques of Christianity give us the right to respond exactly the same, if done with wisdom. Poking holes in Islam can provoke people to search for the truth.
I do not intend to make trouble; the guidance of the Holy Spirit is necessary.
But when asked what we think of their prophet, we can say first that he is not mentioned in the Bible. That he can be your prophet, but not mine. If they are coming to us first, this is better than our poking. And the sincerity of their questioning can be stimulated through our daily conduct. Christians must be generous, visit frequently, win trust, and indeed do good works. But we must never water down our faith.
Unfortunately, 95 percent of the criticism we get at al-Hayat comes from fellow Christians. “You are harming us,” they say, “and they will kill us.” I reply that Muslims persecuted you before our channel, and they will do so after we are gone. But our brothers and sisters misunderstand us—we do not attack; we speak the truth in love. Muslims must see believers presenting Christ, even if the local context says we must not shout.
But we have our own laundry to wash also. Church planters begin well with an intention to reach unreached peoples, and then wind up pivoting to reach the Orthodox and Catholic. Who said these communities do not have the truth of the Bible? We have to stop fishing in the fridge, so to speak, for many traditional churches have won far more Muslims to Jesus than the Protestants.
In some ways, these converts have it easier in North Africa than other regions where the Christians are an accepted minority. As the minority of our minority, their concerns about security and persecution weigh heavily upon the rest, who cannot embrace them publicly. Oddly enough, as a Muslim-background believer myself, I find myself frequently welcomed in all sorts of churches. They don’t say it, but I feel the sense from most Christians is this: Finally, we got one of them.
Warda is the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, and founder of his city’s Catholic University and Maryamana Hospital, in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
Over the centuries since the arrival of Islam in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), the ability to publicly witness to a gospel which invites discipleship has been continuously narrowed by the constraints of Islamic teaching and rule of law. Even today, Iraq’s constitution remains explicitly based in sharia law, and its allowance of other religions outside Islam consists essentially of a limited freedom to practice within a tightly constrained community. To say that “freedom of religion” exists in Iraq and similar countries—as understood in the United States—is fundamentally untrue.
Instead, our freedom of religion should be viewed as essentially a discretionary tolerance from Islamic rulers towards the minority “other,” such as Christians or Yazidis, that can be subjectively restricted according to the mood of the Islamic authorities at the time.
In all cases, proselytizing of Muslims is prohibited, usually violently so. In cases where Muslims do pursue conversion to Christianity, it is almost always accompanied by a subsequent need to flee their homes due to real fears of violent retribution. It is within this fundamental context that we must consider the Christian ability to witness to the gospel beyond its private practice within the church or home.
Christianity in Iraq has therefore developed what could best be referred to as “evangelization by example.” We Christians can outwardly demonstrate our Christian mission by serving others in a nonthreatening, nonproselytizing manner. In this way, it might give them pause to think about our commitments and motivations, displayed in the provision of humble and charitable service to the entire community. This is why in Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, so many schools and hospitals are still operating with some type of Christian affiliation. We do what we can within this space to faithfully live out our Christian mission, engaging in indirect evangelization.
People in the West will realize that this does not equate with the freedom of religion as they understand it. But to do more would certainly be met with a violence that would likely spread dangerously and cause real harm to many uninvolved innocent people—including Muslims. Great prudence is required, not reckless conduct.
But another form of damage to witness comes through the divisions amongst our Christian community. While our known historical schisms have plagued us for centuries, in the last few decades we see new divisions from forms of faith coming from outside the region. Many deeply held views have their own degree of validity, and the solution lies in our continual and respectful dialogue. But deliberate efforts to proselytize within the Christian community is not only detrimental to our ecumenical unity, but also to our common witness toward Muslims.
And then, in cooperation, it is through service to the greater society that we Christians have our only effective means of providing any form of evangelization in much of the Middle East today. We pray this demonstrates not only our clear intention to live in peace, but also the truth and substance of our Christian faith.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingA Tale of Two New York City PastorsOne formed me. The other entertained me.
- From the MagazineI Find Comfort in the Divine WarriorA surprising psalm changed my view on God’s presence during seasons of trial.
- RelatedDied: Tim Keller, New York City Pastor Who Modeled Winsome Witness“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”españolPortuguêsFrançais简体中文한국어Indonesian繁體中文русскийУкраїнська日本語
- Editor's PickTheological Education Can’t Catch Up to Global Church GrowthUnless seminaries leave the ivory tower for local leaders in the public square. Like these ones have.