At First Things, Peter J Leithart has made some interesting observations about the state of Christianity in the Middle East. Once the heartland of the Christian faith, this area of the globe has been a hard place for a Christian to live in the last 50 years or so. Just read the list provided by Leithart:
“According to Walter Russell Mead, more than half of the Christians in Iraq have fled the country since 2003. Today it’s happening in Syria. Swedish journalist Nuri Kino reports on a ‘silent exodus of Christians from Syria’ in the face of ‘kidnappings and rapes.’ It’s a regional trend. Two years ago Caroline Glick reported that ‘at the time of Lebanese independence from France in 1946 the majority of Lebanese were Christians. Today less than 30 percent of Lebanese are Christians. In Turkey, the Christian population has dwindled from 2 million at the end of World War I to less than 100,000 today. In Syria, at the time of independence Christians made up nearly half of the population. Today 4 percent of Syrians are Christian. In Jordan half a century ago 18 percent of the population was Christian. Today 2 percent of Jordanians are Christian.’”
This is sad reading, especially when you consider that the reason for this collapse in the native Christian numbers is largely due to persecution. However, these were not the interesting observations that I wished to highlight. Unfortunately, reports of Christians fleeing countries where the belief in the resurrection of Christ has been around for two thousand years are all too commonplace nowadays. What was interesting was the other half of the story that Leithart identifies: that of Muslim conversion in the Middle East to Christianity.
“An Iranian dissident told [Joel] Rosenberg that there may be as many as 4.5 million converts in Iran. New Testaments and other Christian literature have flooded Iran, and Iraqi pastors cannot keep up with the demand for Christian books and pamphlets. Out of the carnage of Sudan, as many as a million have become Christians since 2000. By 2005, there were reportedly 100,000 Christian converts in Saudi Arabia. Because of vicious persecution, it is impossible to tell how many Christians there are in Afghanistan, but some have estimated as many as 20-30,000, and there is a similar number in Uzbekistan, a country that twenty-five years ago had only a handful of believers. Accurate numbers are difficult to find and more difficult to confirm, but even if these are inflated, there’s little doubt that something remarkable is happening.”
This has not gone unnoticed in the Muslim world:
“The trend is alarming enough to provoke a reaction from Islamic regimes. Ahmad Al Qataani startled a journalist in a December 2001 interview by saying that “every hour, 667 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every day, 16,000 Muslims convert to Christianity. Every year, 6 million Muslims convert to Christianity.” In 2004, a Shiite apologist, Hasan Mohammadi, was sent out to high school students to preserve their faith, since “on average every day, fifty Iranian girls and boys convert secretly to Christian denominations in our country.” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has vowed to stop Christianity’s spread in Iran, and under his watch Christian leaders have been kidnapped and murdered.”
Go and read the full story and see some of the reasons that Leithart identifies for these conversions. The one thing that is lacking is any statistics or analysis of the denominations that are proving most successful in these countries. While no one is suggesting that Syria and Egypt of the fourth century are going to reappear, stories like this do give one to pause. From my position of external ignorance I subconsciously tend to view Islam as a monolithic bloc, perhaps even unchanging. This is not the case – there is change and movement within Muslim countries. Despite persecutions and violence against Christians, some brave Muslims are not afraid to convert. Furthermore, it does help to correct the view that Christianity is mainly a Western, white religion. (This is something that commentators routinely forget in the West.) Actually the demography of Christianity has changed remarkably in the last few hundred years, is continuing to change at this moment and will continue to change in the future. Perhaps we will live to see a Nigerian Archbishop of Canterbury? Or another Syrian Pope?