WORLDVIEW: 2 Mideast realities

RICHMOND, Va. (BP) -- Sometimes the tears, the tragedies, the sheer horror of it all overwhelm Christian workers trying to help refugees fleeing war and terror in Syria and Iraq.

Jayson Keath*, a Christian strategy leader based in the Middle East, visited a Syrian refugee family now living in a country inundated with traumatized Syrians. One of the small children in the family was missing a finger -- severed by a slammed car door as they rushed to escape the violence in their homeland. The parents had to knock the child unconscious so pursuing Syrian soldiers wouldn't hear his screams of agony.

"It wasn't so much their pain that gutted me," Keath says. "It was the void of hope in every face. I don't think I've ever seen or felt darkness so strongly."

Can the situation on the ground in Syria and northern Iraq get any worse? Much worse -- as illustrated by ISIS (Islamic State) militants and their genocidal campaign of conquest across the region. The rise of ISIS amid the rubble of two failing states offers evidence of something larger, according to one despairing Arab observer.

An Iraqi refugee family shelters with nearly 500 people from the same village at an unfinished education center. They’re on the run, among tens of thousands of Christians and other minorities forcibly displaced in northern Iraq by ISIS (Islamic State) extremists. Is there hope for them? Yes, says a Christian strategy leader in the region who reports that traditional Christian groups fleeing extremists in Syria and Iraq are finding aid and friendship among evangelical believers -- and hearing the whole Gospel as they never have before.
Photo by Joseph Rose/Genesis Photos
"Arab civilization, such as we knew it, is all but gone," wrote Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese journalist and Washington bureau chief of the Al-Arabiya satellite news network, in a commentary for Politico titled "The Barbarians Within our Gates."

"The Arab world today is more violent, unstable, fragmented and driven by extremism -- the extremism of the rulers and those in opposition -- than at any time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire a century ago," Melhem asserted. "Every hope of modern Arab history has been betrayed. The promise of political empowerment, the return of politics, the restoration of human dignity heralded by the season of Arab uprisings in their early heydays -- all has given way to civil wars, ethnic, sectarian and regional divisions and the reassertion of absolutism. ... Is it any surprise that, like the vermin that take over a ruined city, the heirs to this self-destroyed civilization should be the nihilistic thugs of the Islamic State?"

Melhem speaks for millions of disillusioned people across the Middle East and North Africa who feel caught between larger forces struggling for power. Is there any hope for them?

Yes, says Keath. And he wants Christians watching the struggle from outside the region to know the other side of the story. Hope that was hidden from many in earlier, quieter times is being introduced to people searching desperately for it now.

"The world is captivated by the crisis that has been generated by the movements of ISIS in northern Iraq, the plight of the Yazidis and other minorities," Keath says. "The world is watching, and all they're seeing is the advance of evil -- sheer, utter evil. But there are two realities at work. There is the advance of evil. There is an evil one who is not only lurking but is actively trying to kill and maim and destroy and keep eyes blinded to the light of the Gospel and the glory of Christ.

"But there's also the advance of the Gospel. Everywhere we see these things happening, we see the Gospel advancing in ways that we did not imagine before."

As the visible Christian church in the Mideast faces threats, attacks and persecution from many directions, a new church is being born among Muslims deciding to follow Christ as Lord after seeing Him in dreams and visions, reading the Word of God and seeking out other believers.

And not just Muslims, Keath adds. Members of traditional Christian groups on the run from ISIS and other extremists in Syria are finding shelter, aid and friendship among evangelical believers in the region -- and hearing the whole Gospel as they never have before.

"Now they're meeting in discipleship and growing," Keath says. "Maybe God is moving in a way to lead those in the ancient church back to Christ, because that is happening. There are others -- Orthodox from Syria and in another country bordering Syria that have come to faith in Jesus for the first time. There are multiple people groups that we're talking about; there's Sunni, there's Shia, there's Alawite, there's Bedouin, there's Orthodox, there's Assyrians and Kurds. We can find believers now from all of these people groups that have come to faith as a result of the Syrian crisis. ... Yes, the world needs to respond to the crisis, but there are enormous opportunities to confront people with the Gospel of Christ who have never been confronted with it before. All these people groups that I just listed, we never had access to them before [in Syria]....

"The same thing is happening in Iraq right now. It's not just the Yazidis and Christian minorities and other minorities; it's the Sunni Muslims who are fleeing Mosul and other areas who are coming out by the hundreds of thousands. We have had no engagement of Iraqi Sunnis -- and now we have an opportunity to do that. It's not just the immediate response; it's 'Lord, what space are You creating for the Gospel to go forth, and how do we steward that opportunity?'"

With new opportunities come new and increasing risks across the region. But risks won't stop the work God has begun.

"We will not accept that we cannot engage in these countries," Keath says. "It's just a matter of what is our presence and what does that strategy look like? How do we continue to see Gospel penetration in these countries? Yes, there will be strategic shifts. [But] the Gospel is going to continue to advance.

"God is moving; the nations are stirring. It's going to happen. It may not involve us every time, but it's going to happen. It is happening."

Erich Bridges is an International Mission Board global correspondent.
*Name changed. To learn more about the advance of the Gospel amid the turmoil of the Syrian refugee crisis, click here. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP).
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