Faith on the edge
Across the Middle East and North Africa, a new partnership is helping people hold on to faith in Jesus
Ten years after deciding to follow Jesus, a huge portion of Muslim-background believers (MBBs) turn back to Islam or to atheism. CMS is announcing a new plan and a key partnership that will help MBBs continue to journey with Jesus.
“Adam” from Bahrain is 23 years old. His journey to faith in Jesus began about five years ago:
“I first started searching about Jesus when I was 18. I went to the church and told the priest I wanted to be Christian and to know more about Jesus, but he said he could not help me because of their policy.”
Adam persevered in his search. You can read his story on page 6, where he describes being tempted to leave and a stint in prison.
Adam kept pursuing Jesus, but for many, the road to faith is too rocky to stay on. Even after turning to Issa, Arabic for Jesus, a substantial portion veer away. There can be several reasons for this.
Persecution: only part of the problem
It is well known that in many areas of the Middle East and North Africa, Christians, including those who turn to Jesus from a Muslim background, are mistreated for their faith. In 2019, the Foreign Office commissioned Philip Mounstephen, Bishop of Truro and a former executive leader of Church Mission Society, to produce a report on Christian persecution.1 The report’s findings are stark: “In countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia the situation of Christians and other minorities has reached an alarming stage.”
However, despite this systemic persecution across the region, interest in the Christian faith is growing as new believers are drawn to Jesus through dreams, visions and the love and kindness of Christians they meet. God is on the move but new believers face a barrage of obstacles.
Even in places where there is less official opposition from the government, men and women who turn to Jesus from a Muslim background often face intense pressure and scorn from family, friends and colleagues. On a recent overseas visit, CMS mission director Andy Roberts described meeting a North African woman, two of whose sisters had returned to practising Islam after their two brothers had been killed for following Jesus.
“When a Muslim-background believer first becomes a believer, at minimum they will be kicked out of their family and disowned. It’s likely they will lose their job and face a life in constant fear of being discovered or attacked,” says Mamdouh, founder and president of Together Network (TN). TN works in over 22 countries, upholding MBBs in their faith.
Yet, Mamdouh says persecution is only part of the problem. “The biggest challenge MBBs face is internal, because they have no freedom to be themselves.”
This is particularly true among “secret believers”: Mamdouh describes a woman he knows whose everyday routine involves removing her cross and donning her hijab before returning home – in a sense, living a double life. Sociologists talk about anomie: a feeling of a lack of belonging, the inability to be authentic. Rejected by their communities, MBBs are unmoored, disorientated. There is a dramatic remaking of worldview. Furthermore, culturally Christianity can be seen as a western product, particularly if the church has adopted much that is western in terms of structure, music and vocabulary. This adds to an overall loss of identity for MBBs, which can be intensely painful.
“Nobody should have to figure out faith on their own… we want to see Muslim-background believers grow to become deep disciples of Jesus, who can in turn disciple others.”
The above factors have contributed to a notable exodus of Jesus-followers from the Middle East and North Africa. A century ago Christians comprised 20 per cent of the population in the Middle East and North Africa, but today Christians make up less than 4 per cent. This compounds the pressure and isolation experienced by those who remain, leading to further faith attrition. In his story, Adam describes the intense temptation to leave Bahrain and move to North America.
A cautious Church
Adam’s account of approaching a church and being rejected is not unfamiliar. Some churches across the Middle East, North Africa, as well as Europe and Britain, are hesitant to reach out to or welcome MBBs, out of suspicion of motives or fear of reprisal. In the Middle East, new believers are subjected to intense scrutiny in an effort to ascertain they aren’t undercover informants. In the UK, Muslim seekers are viewed with scepticism by some churches.
Keeping the faith
CMS has recently determined that a key focus for the coming years will be helping MBBs stay on the path with Jesus. This will happen in the following ways:
- Bringing CMS people in mission (mission partners and local partners) together to focus on discipling MBBs.
- Partnering with Together Network and supporting training events where MBBs come together to share experiences, encourage one another and take part in learning that will strengthen their faith and help them share with others. Like Amil, who Andy Roberts met recently: “Because of the discipleship course, he started a church in his own home, led his family to Christ and was seeing many more come to faith. He’s able to use the material to train up others from his house church to do the same.”
- Lovingly challenging churches to welcome and disciple new MBBs. CMS is in a good position for this due to longstanding relationships with churches in the Middle East and the UK.
Tanas Alqassis, CMS’s manager for the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, says about this key focus: “Nobody should have to figure out faith on their own. MBBs have to know that they aren’t alone. The foundation for our partnership with Together Network is that we both want to see Muslim background believers grow to become deep disciples of Jesus, who can in turn disciple others.”
“This is my dream, to share about God and truth with others so they can know freedom, too,” says Adam.
1 Truro Independent Review of FCO Support for Persecuted Christians Final Text for the Libraries of Houses of Parliament 08072019 Final (christianpersecutionreview.org.uk)