1. THE CHURCH IN AFGHANISTAN: GROWING FAST!
History: Some Jews from western Afghanistan were present at the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:9). They were from the Parthian Empire, so the Gospel probably arrived in Afghanistan a few months after that day. Church tradition says that both Bartholomew and Thomas went there to evangelise. The historian Bardaison, writing in 196AD speaks of Christians throughout Parthia. By 250AD there were nine city-based bishops in Afghanistan. In 1282AD Ahmed Teduker assumed the throne and began the country’s switch to Islam.
Today: With 37 million people, Afghanistan is now a desperately poor and suffering country with an average income of 1% of the USA. Almost 60% of people are under 20 years of age and life expectancy is only 44 years. However, a new generation is now growing up without the repression of the Taliban and they long for freedom and opportunity. Over 4 million refugees have now returned even though the Taliban still controls some 13% of the country in what is basically a political stalemate. Only 15% of the country is connected to the internet, but 50% have mobile phones.
The form of Islam practiced here is severe and repressive, especially for women. Stiff punishments apply for anyone converting away from Islam as well as rejection from family. However God is moving in an unprecedented way as you will see from the list below. This is because wherever Islam has become violent and repressive in recent years there seems to be a sudden growth in those coming to Christ.
True Christianity: Here are some of the amazing stories coming out of Afghanistan: The government now warns that “Christianity has obtained a special place not only among youth, but also among various layers in society”. A Farsi news service reported recently that high ranking members of society are becoming Christians. House churches are multiplying. Thousands of Afghans who fled to Iran and Europe (start reading half way down this link to see what amazing things are happening in Germany) have become Christians. The Iranian church embraced the Afghans while Iranians as a whole hated their presence. Last, and most importantly, Isik Abla Ministries report that they had 182,000 thousand active Facebook followers in Kabul alone at the end of 2017. That’s nearly 4% of all internet users in the country actively taking in Christian teaching. Something BIG is happening!
2. THE ALBANIAN CHURCH EXISTS AGAIN, JUST!
History: Albania is a tiny country just north and west of Greece on the Adriatic coast. Albania features in the book of Romans, where in chapter 15 verse 19, Paul says that by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. Illyricum was the Roman name for what is now Albania. By 60AD there was even a Bishop in one of its cities. Although the church was birthed in signs and wonders, it quickly settled down into one of religion and ritual as the Catholic and Orthodox churches battled for dominance. The famous heretic Arius was banished to Albania before the Council of Nicaea then banished him further away to Syria where he laid the foundations for Islamic theology. Not much happened from then on for a thousand years.
After conquering Constantinople in 1458, the Muslim armies marched into to Albania on their way to eventually reaching Vienna with the aim of conquering Europe. Sadly, the Catholic and Orthodox elite quickly embraced Islam in order to preserve their social status. It wasn’t until the 16th Century that much of the wider population converted to Islam under great persecution and duress. The next sad development was the coming of ultra conservative Communism in the 20Th Century. Albania became the first declared Atheistic state in 1967. The true church of Albania by that stage has basically ceased to exist.
Today: After the fall of Communism many western missionaries rushed in to Albania because of its status as an Atheistic country and the evangelical church was planted, to the ire of the three established religious blocs who wanted their flocks back. Unfortunately the new church picked up many of the bad habits the missionaries brought with them. Thankfully today there is still freedom of religion and the country is nominally 60% Muslim, 20% Catholic in the north, 10% Orthodox in the south and 10% atheist. These numbers include some 14,000 evangelicals.
In 2015 I visited Albania and dropped off a book to the Albanian Encouragement Project head office, the umbrella organisation for evangelicals in Albania. It was a publication I picked up from an ex-Muslim in India showing the supremacy of Jesus Christ inside the Qur’an. It was eagerly accepted as many church leaders are ex-Muslim. I was left with the impression Albania needed a great new wave of sign and wonders to shake it out of 1,800 years of religious darkness.
True Christianity: The evangelicals of Albania are growing at around 5% a year, against a stagnant national population. However, I was told the quick growth of the 1990’s has been replaced with a maturing of local leadership and a lot more training. The started from scratch so have had to relearn many truths we take for granted. Most Muslims are nominal any young so it is not so difficult to see them won to Jesus. Muslim households are very patriarchal so winning the men is key to evangelism. The Albanian church now has several fine training institutes and is already sending out missionaries to other ex-Communist and Muslim countries.
3. THE ALGERIAN GOVERNMENT FEARS THE GROWING CHURCH
History: On the Day of Pentecost Peter preached to many north African Jews, but it is not known if there were any from modern day Algeria. What we do know is that Phillip preached the gospel not far away in Carthage to the Berber Peoples, the original north Africans before the Arab conquests. In fact Simone of Cyrene, the man who carried the cross of Christ was a Berber!
In the 1st Century AD the land of Algeria was violently incorporated into the Roman Empire, but at the same time it was embracing the new faith of Christianity. Soon North Africa would become a stronghold of Christianity and the religion of protest and theological strength. St Augustine of Hippo was actually an Algerian Berber! However, between 300-600AD the church there would succumb to small mindedness, pagan infiltration and religious trivia. They concentrated on ornate buildings, were inward-looking and were poorly taught in the Scriptures.
With the coming of the Arab Empire in the 8th Century, a new and intolerant theology and culture gradually took root, one hostile to the Christian faith. Islam tolerated Christianity for several centuries until the Berbers were finally forced at the point of the sword to convert to Islam. There was no known Christianity in Algeria since 1114 AD, but the Berbers never lost their language, alphabet, identity or the memory that they were forced into Islam. Berber groups were only ever nominally Muslim. Their observances of Islamic law are generally lax.
Today: Things began to change in 1881 when Protestant missionaries took up the task of reaching out to the Algerian people. Church growth was slow until Bible correspondence courses were set up in the 1960’s. After independence from France (and a million deaths later) the church continued to grow but slowly. Then the civil war erupted, pitting the secular government and military against Islamists. Hundreds of thousands more died. That’s when the church began to grow rapidly.
The attempted Islamisation of the country backfired, with tens of thousands of Berbers returning to the faith of their ancient forebears. Some now estimate the number of believers among the 8 million Berbers is now over 100,000 and growing strongly at over 10% a year. There are believers in nearly every community. The majority of Algerians are Arab Muslims and the Berber believers are starting to reach out to them.
The Arab dominated government is very upset with this new and “dangerous” religious movement and is beginning to crack down on the many open churches scattering the Berber settlements in the Atlas Mountains. Persecution is growing and so is the church. Yet there is curiosity among the Arabs. Youssef Qurahmane, a leading pastor who was arrested a few years ago remembers being given 45 minutes to share the gospel with his fascinated Arab captors at a local police station.
The presidential election next year could see an Islamist government take over from the secularists. In the lead up the Secularists are flexing their Muslim credentials by picking on the Christians. 2019 could see a spiritual darkness come over the country of Algeria.
True Christianity: Church leaders say The Church started out very small. In the beginning we saw very little growth, but then the growth became like a rolling snowball, growing bigger and bigger. Now, there are zeros at end of the growth numbers! Because of the ban on missionaries, the church is completely indigenous and has a heart to reach out beyond its Berber strongholds. Many churches now number up to 1,000 or more, have their own buildings, and are now stockpiling Berber language Bibles for the days of persecution ahead. Christian media via SAT-7 and the internet are a huge source of teaching for new believers and seekers alike. Christian evangelists are now sharing their lives right into the living room of hundreds of thousands of secret listeners. This is the first time Muslims are hearing the Christian point of view in a mature and reasoned way.
4. THE CHURCH OF AZERBAIJAN: SMALL BUT WITH A BIG HEART
History: Situated on the western side of the Caspian Sea and bordering Georgia, Armenia, Russia and Iran, the Azeri people have been a pawn in the history of many large empires throughout history. At the time of Christ it was part of the Persian Empire.
It is believed that the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus came from Armenia over to Azerbaijan and planted the Christian faith, and the first church was erected in the village Kish. The origins and formation of the Azari Church and culture are closely associated with the history of Nestorian Christianity which dominated the Middle East in the early centuries after Christ. Christianity officially became the state religion in this region at the beginning of the 4th century, making Azerbaijan region one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.
However, everything changed in 667 with the invasion of the Arabs. As Islam took off over the next century and became the dominate faith of the Empire, so it seeped into the Azeri Christian community. However, a thousand years later there were still pockets of Armenian Christians in the country. In the 16th century, the first shah of Iran established Shia Islam as the state religion. In 1806 Azerbaijan was occupied and then annexed by the Russian Empire during the Russo-Persian War.
With the Russians came a wave of Orthodox Christians. One group exiled from Russia to Azerbaijan were a group called the Molokan Jumpers. These were the closest thing in Russia to Pentecostal Christians and they incurred the wrath of both the Russian state. One hundred years later Communist atheism also came down from Russia and suppressed all religions in Azerbaijan. At the same time some of the Molokan Jumpers were divinely led to go to America where they were some of the first to join the Azusa St Revival in San Francisco…wow!
The world’s first oil boom actually began in Azerbaijan and at one time it produced half the world’s oil. it still lives off oil wealth today. With the exit of Communism and Russia in 1991 there was also an exodus of Russian Orthodox oil workers. The next decade was chaotic and culminated in the Nagorno-Karabakh War, which saw Armenian Christians driven into one small province.
Today: As with most ex-Russian colonies, the intensity of Islam is low and many are nominal. The 40 or so believers known to exist in 1991 has now grown to at least 10,000 and some say much more than this number. Azeri language literature, Bibles, music and other forms of ministry are beginning to develop, mainly in Baku where most believers live.
Unfortunately Christianity is still associated with Russian imperialism, Armenian hostility and western colonialism in general. The religious freedom experienced after 1991 have dwindled. Yet even with a stagnant population, the number of evangelicals continues to grow by around 4% a year. This would create a church of some 70,000 by 2050. Today there are still 11 communities of Molokins in Azerbaijan.
The government sees all forms of Christianity as a threat, and also sees some elements of Islam as a threat. So it has enacted strict laws on the expression of religion. No foreign involvement, no foreign funding, no expression of one’s faith outside the registered building etc. This is forcing the church underground. Some 25% of the Iranian population are actually Azeri’s and many have come to faith in Christ.
True Christianity: Sari Mirzoev was the first Azeri to become a Christian back in 1991. Today he leads the largest evangelical church in Azerbaijan. He is on the record as saying Sometimes we have as many as 30-40 people who accept Christ as their personal Saviour in a single service. His vision is to see the whole country won to Jesus. Mission Eurasia is also helping train local leaders for the harvest of souls. Because there is a large Azeri diaspora in surrounding countries, many evangelists are now making trips to Iran, Turkey, Georgia and Iraq to evangelise their own Azeri people in these nations.
5. THE CHURCH OF BAHRAIN: WIPED OUT AND STRUGGLING
History: The tiny island country of Bahrain, just off the Arabian coast in the Persian Gulf, has been a strategic asset for many empires right through history. While under Persian rule in the 4th Century, many Christians arrived in the area around modern Bahrain after being pushed out of Iraq. The Persians at first persecuted these Christians but then adopted a policy of toleration later that century because the numbers of Christians kept growing. By the beginning of the fourth Century we have records of Christians inhabiting many places in the Persian Gulf and in Eastern Arabia. Monasteries and churches were common and there was a strong Christian literary output, mainly in Aramaic, the lingua-franca of the Middle East at that time as Arabic did not yet exist
With the arrival of the Arab empire and its evolution from Syriac Christianity to Islam between 630 and 800 AD, most pagans in the region converted. However most of the Jews, Christians and Persian Zoroastrians elected to pay an onerous tax in order to keep their faith. It was not until around 1000 AD that Christianity largely, and sadly, died out in the region around Bahrain.
However, Persian rather than Arab influence remained strong on the island, and the population became mainly Shia Muslim, as in Iran today. This would lead to much political conflict with the Sunni Muslims of nearby Arabia throughout history, conflict which continues simmering even today.
In the late 18th Century the British took control of Bahrain and turned it into a cosmopolitan international trading centre full of merchants from all over the Persian Gulf and South Asia. Each brought their food, culture and religion, and that’s when Christianity first came back. In 1932 oil was discovered and this turbocharged Bahrain’s economic development, bringing in Christian expats who remain to this day.
Today: In 1971 the British left and Bahrain became an independent country with the majority Shia being uncomfortably ruled by a minority Sunni monarch. In 2001 Bahrain became a constitutional monarchy with a parliament that allowed minority religions and women to participate. But this wasn’t enough for the Shia majority and in 2011 the Arab Spring came to Bahrain and stirred up massive protests against the Sunni government. There was a brutal crackdown.
Oil supplies 50% of all revenues and the economy is now suffering badly because of low oil prices. The country is being financially propped up by nearby Sunni Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to keep the king in power and the Shiites placated.
The nation now consists of about half Bahraini people and half expatriate workers. The mix is as follows: Bahraini 46%, Asian 45.5%, other Arab 4.7%, African 1.6%, European 1%. Most expatriate Christians come from the South Indian guest worker community. although there are now believed to be some secret believers inside the large Iranian expatriate community. Western churches and denominations are permitted in supervised areas. Evangelism to Arabs is forbidden.
True Christiianity: There are basically four parts to the body of Christ in Bahrain and communication between them is very limited. There is the Western expatriate Christian community, the large South Indian guest worker house church community, the 1,600 strong native Bahraini Orthodox Christian community and the tiny but heavily persecuted Muslim background believer church (MBB).
Although tolerant of expatriate workers following their own faith, there are approximately 188,000 expatriate Christians in total but only 19 expatriate church buildings, so many groups must share them. Bahrain takes a very hard-line approach to any Muslim citizen who converts. Persecution is severe. In 2010 Operation World estimated there were about 1,650 Muslim Background Believers now in the country, today this figure would be higher. These people face severe persecution and social disadvantage. They must worship in secret. Bahrain needs a spiritual breakthrough.
There has been a well-respected Christian hospital in Bahrain since 1903, and this gives Christianity a good reputation. The former ambassador to England, Alees Samaan, is a Christian…and a woman!
6. THE CHURCH IN BANGLADESH: GROWING RAPIDLY
History: For most of its history Bangladesh was a part of greater India. What is now Bangladesh was first unified under ancient Aryan influence and from these origins came the great Bengali ethnic population of some 240 million today. For thousands of years Bangladesh ebbed and flowed to the rhythm of greater Indian imperial politics and its Hindu religion.
Islam arrived peacefully in the 8th Century via traders. But then in the 14th Century greater India was conquered by Muslim armies. Most Hindus resisted conversion to the new faith. However, over time, and especially during the era of Moghul rule from 1526 till 1857, the Bengali people became the greatest missionary success story in all of Islam. Today, at over 200 million people, they are the largest single block of Muslims in the world, and the largest people group in the world unreached with the Gospel.
In the 15th Century Portuguese traders arrived and Jesuit missionaries soon followed. They were eventually followed again by the British who conquered all Moghul lands and Bengali peoples through a policy of divide and rule. The British even set up their Indian capital in the Bengali heartland at Calcutta.
Independence from India came in 1948 as part of Pakistan called East Pakistan. Independence from Pakistan came in 1971 after a bitter civil war. The Bengalis finally had their own nation and in 1988 Islam was declared its national religion.
Today: Bangladesh is now a desperately poor country of some 170 million people with an average income is just 1% of the USA. Needless to say it is also one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Since independence it has been ruled mostly by two dynastic political families drawn from the upper class. Since 1991 it has been ruled by the two women who represent these dynasties today.
It is 90% Muslim, 9% Hindu and less than 1% Christian. However, most Muslims follow “folk Islam” which is a blend of Sufism, Hinduism and indigenous culture. Radical Islam is on the rise and their goal is convert all Bengalis to Islam. A decade ago radical Islamist parties were banned from politics and several leaders executed.
True Christianity: In 1786 a Baptist missionary arrived in Calcutta by the name of William Carey, who translated the Bible into Bengali and four other languages! He started schools, universities and charities for the poor. He is now considered the father of modern Protestant Christian missions and is still considered a great hero to the Bengali people. He sowed the seed of truth which would eventually take off.
And take off it has. Following a half century where the church has surprisingly grown much faster than the population, today some 0.5% of Bangladeshi citizens, or 0.75 million people, are now an active follower of Jesus. This is up from 0.05% in 1960, a ten-fold increase. Fascinatingly, Bangladesh has seen Christianity take root with great cultural sensitivity, which means many followers of Jesus are now embedded within the traditional Islamic cultural structures and institutions. Some even call themselves perfect Muslims. Up until the year 2000 most new Christians are from Hindu backgrounds, but then reports started to flow in of large numbers of new Muslim Background (MBB) converts, especially among the young. The tipping point seems to have been reached and within this century followers of Jesus could top 10-20 million. The non-Muslim hill tribe peoples close to India are also coming to faith in large numbers. The Santal, Munda, Khasi and Garo peoples are now more than 10% evangelical.
In practice this means the Christianity in Bangladesh is ethnically divided into the underground Church, which consists of those who converted from Islam, and the visible Church, which consists of those who converted from Hinduism. Moreover, the underground Church can be divided into those who worship in secret and those who worship openly, such as when an entire village converts to Christianity, which is reportedly happening a lot in rural areas. Poverty among the general Christian population is severe, even by Bangladeshi standards.
Persecution is also very severe. Many new believers are disowned by their spouses, children, employers and community. Beatings are common and the police usually turn a blind eye to the violence. The rising tide of radical Islam is particularly brutal against those that leave Islam, and toward all Christian evangelists. This is why many new believers stay inside the Muslim culture once converted, and this is actually speeding up the growth. Open Doors says Bangladesh one of the worst countries in the world for persecution, making active Bangladeshi evangelists some of the spiritually strongest in the world, sometimes being murdered for their cause. I personally met one evangelist in 2009 who had been introduced to Jesus years earlier by an Australian. When I met him he had already brought 12,000 Muslims to Jesus!
7. THE BOSNIAN CHURCH: STRUGGLING BIGTIME!
History: Bosnia is a tiny country of some 3.6 million people wedged in between Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. It’s size and location has led to it being steamrolled by large armies and cultural forces throughout its history. It was originally inhabited by the earliest tribes to enter Europe, and was then tossed back and forth between the Greeks, the Persians, The Romans, the Slavs, the Huns, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Nazi’s and the Communists!
Christianity arrived in the first Century and quickly took root. However, by the 4th Century the whole region was the theological battleground between the emerging Byzantine Catholic church and the Orthodox Churches. The Bosnian Church resisted both sides into the Middle Ages so was considered heretical by the two external church systems. Many modern scholars have identified its theology as essential Gnostic, a pre-Christian philosophy that was very widely followed around the Mediterranean. The Nicolaitons of Turkey, mentioned in Revelation 2:6, 15, were Gnostics.
A thousand years ago Bosnia separated from Serbia and by then its culture was dominated by the spiritually dead Orthodox Church. Bosnia was then invaded in 1463 by the Ottoman Turks in their ongoing quest to conqueror Christian Europe in the name of Islam. This resulted in tremendous changes to the cultural and religious landscape of Bosnia. Eventually half the population converted to Islam. In 1878 Bosnia was conquered by the Austrians and incorporated into the independent Slavic state of Yugoslavia. The Austrian occupation would eventually lead to the spark that started World War One. World War 2 saw genocide inflicted on the Muslim Bosnians by the Catholic Croats. Communism took root after the war and when Communism dissolved, genocide and war once again erupted. The Balkans War of the 1990’s resulted in 100,000 dead and 2 million displaced.
Today: There seems to be little happiness in this tragically divided country where religious and ethnic strife are accepted aspects of life. The country of Bosnia is now 51% Muslim, 28% Orthodox Christian and 12% Catholic. Each group tends to dominate in particular geographical location and when they share a space they do not mix culturally. In fact there are now three parliaments and three presidents in what is essentially a failed state. Religious difference and distrust is as entrenched more than ever since the war. The country is extremely poor by European standards and infrastructure that was destroyed in the war is still broken. They say there is a war in the Balkans every generation!
True Christianity: The Orthodox and Catholic churches had little tolerance for spiritual revival throughout Bosnia’s history, which left it easy prey to Islam when it arrived. As a result Bosnia today has no understanding of, or experience with, evangelical Christianity. This is typical of the wider Balkan region. Sadly, Jehovah’s Witnesses now outnumber evangelical Christians and Bosnia’s Muslims are the least evangelised people group in all of Europe. Fortunately, the Muslims of Bosnia are typically nominal, with little interest in Islamic traditions or radicalisation among the young.
However there is a glimmer of hope for the true church of Jesus Christ. Since the war evangelical believers have increased significantly, with small congregations multiplying from 3 to 35 since the 1990’s War. But this is a miniscule proportion of the population and there is little I can write about the spiritual condition of Bosnia that is encouraging! Pentecostal Christians number just 500 and are located in only two cities, Sarajevo and Mostar. People with contacts on the ground tell me there is currently a crackdown on Christian missions work with most visas not being renewed. The only brightness in this darkness is the current translation of the whole Bible into modern Bosnian.
8. THE CHURCH IN BRUNEI: DESPERATE FOR A BREAKTHROUGH
History: Brunei is a tiny country of just over 400,000 people on the northwest coast of the Island of Borneo, an island shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Records show that Brunei was trading with China as far back as the 6th century. Historical references in Chinese and Hindu chronicles refer to a maritime-based trading kingdom situated at the mouth of the Brunei River. Its history and existence in medieval times was closely linked to the founders of the Ming Dynasty in China and to Chinese Buddhism.
From the 13th to the 15th Centuries, through allegiance to the Javanese Majapahit kingdom it came under Hindu influence. Then, in the early 15th century the kingdom was then exposed to Muslim traders from Malacca and widespread conversion to Islam took place. Brunei became an independent Islamic sultanate after the king’s conversion. It was a powerful state from the 16th to the 18th century, ruling over the northern part of Borneo, adjacent island chains and even pats of the Philippines. Brunei eventually fell into economic and political decay and lost Sarawak in 1841 to the British. It became a British protectorate in 1888, and then a British dependency in 1905. Japan briefly occupied Brunei during World War II before it was liberated by Australia in 1945.
The sultan regained control over internal affairs in 1959, but Britain retained responsibility for the state’s defence and foreign affairs until independence in 1984. Oil has since made Brunei very, very wealthy. Citizens pay no income tax and Brunei even owns the Beverly Hills Hotel amongst many foreign investments. Brunei now has one of the highest per-capita incomes in Asia and the sultan is believed to be one of the richest and most ostentatious men in the world. He and his brother are extremely self-indulgent and the sultan even sports a harem of 30 young women flown in from all over the world.
Today: Brunei is practically an absolute monarchy, with very limited political representation. In 2013 the Sultan started imposing draconian sharia law on all Muslims, who make up two-thirds of the country’s 400,000 inhabitants. Attendance at Friday prayers is now compulsory and brutal punishments are handed out for actions deemed crimes in the Qur’an. Hypocritically, the Sultan is legally exempt from all sharia laws and just as well considering his lifestyle! Non-Muslims are now subject to creeping Islamisation via its compulsory teaching in the entire school system. This has led to a new brain-drain among the well-educated who hate the new restrictions on themselves and influence on their children.
Brunei’s wealth is built solely on oil. Ninety three percent of all government revenues come from oil exports which are now declining and oil will run out within two decades. Brunei’s declining economic fortunes are being countered by ever-growing Chinese economic influence. After many centuries it is once again becoming an outpost of Chinese mercantilism!
Sunni Islam is dominant and restrictive. Islam is obligatory for all Malays from birth. Leaving Islam is forbidden and punishable. It is believed there are only a handful of Malay believers in Brunei and they face severe persecution if found out. True Christianity and missions work by foreigners is not permitted, but Christians may freely convert to Islam and the government is constantly offering financial inducements to anyone, especially tribal Christians, to convert.
True Christianity: Anglican missionaries first came to Brunei in 1848. The Roman Catholic Church has also been established in Brunei for over 100 years but its leadership were all expelled in 1991. Three Australian missionaries established the Borneo Evangelical Mission in Sarawak in 1928, a work that led to the birth of the SIB Church, which now numbers 500,000 in neighbouring Malaysian Borneo. Although still functioning among the village people, the SIB has no legal presence in Brunei.
The religious atmosphere in Brunei is repressive but evangelical Christians still surprisingly number 6.1 percent of the total population, many are from the Dusun people group who are farmers living in the jungle villages. Some 15% of the Chinese population, who control most commerce in Brunei, are also Christian. Many believers are affiliated with a growing number of independent congregations and most of these are not officially registered. Some Christians do meet secretly but meetings in homes are being regularly raided by the religious police in an effort to shut them down. The number of believers is growing at around 4% a year, much to the consternation of the Islamist government. The government also greatly fears the influence of the internet and its access to alternative beliefs to Islam.
9. BURKINA FASO: THE CHURCH IS GROWING, BUT SO IS ISLAM
History: Slightly larger than Victoria in Australia, Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa of some 20 million people that ranges from tropical savannah in the south to the Sahara Desert in the north. The name Burkina Faso means The land of upright men.
Its ancient history is one of small subsistence tribal groups until the arrival of the Mossi peoples from Ghana sometime around the 14th Century. The Mossi established an empire that covered much of modern Burkina Faso as well as a wider region. Being located near many of the main Islamic states of West Africa, the Mossi kingdoms developed a mixed religious system recognizing some authority for Islam while retaining earlier ancestor-focused Animist worship. Although they had initially resisted Islamic imposition and retained independence from the main Islamic states around them, eventually there began to be a growing number of Muslims living in the kingdom. But by 1900 the colony was still 90% Animist and 10% Muslim. As the 20th Century progressed the number of Muslims increased rapidly, as did the number of Catholics. By 2000 the country was over 55% Muslim and roughly 20% Christian, with Animism making up the remainder, but shrinking in influence.
In 1897, the Mossi became a French protectorate and by 1903 France had subjugated all other ethnic groups in that region of Africa. The French kept the institutions of the Mossi empire largely intact for decades. Unlike the British, the French had little interest in social development in its empire. So what the French then called Upper Volta was left without much in the way of education, health care, administrative infrastructure and economic development when it became independent on Aug. 5, 1960.
The Situation Today: This lack of development has led to an average life expectancy of just 54 years, an average income of 1% of the USA and a revolving door of military coups since independence. Population density is high by African standards in the south. With over 90% of the population involved in subsistence agriculture, in times of drought large migrations take place into neighbouring countries, especially to Cote d’Ivoire (The Ivory Coast). Democracy is now slowly taking root but the military is always a factor in the background. The country is still a secular state with a remarkable level of religious freedom.
Islam takes on an unusual flavour in Burkina Faso. On the surface it is largely Sunni , but Shi’a is growing in popularity. Then again Sufism is also very popular. Below these surface labels however, locals are quick to tell you that Burkina Faso is 55% Muslim, 20% Christian and 100% Animist! Witchcraft and the occult are still widely followed by people in all the new religions. This unusual blend of Islam continues to grow numerically and unfortunately will one day dominate politics and the culture.
True Christianity: Burkina Faso is therefore a country rapidly dividing between the world’s two major religions as the number of Animist continues to shrink. Most Christians are in the centre and south. The desert north belongs to Islam. The populated south west is disputed between the two religions. Sadly, because of the influence of French Catholicism, by 1960 there were still virtually no evangelical believers in the country. This situation changed dramatically in the decades leading up to the year 2000 and the country is now 10% evangelical, or some 2 million people are born again. This was one of the most dramatic growth rates in the history of Christianity. Growth has now slowed to about 4% a year, about the same growth rate as Islam. The great influx of new Christians has left the new churches with little in the way of missions vision because the harvest of souls was TOO easy for too long!
Unfortunately, only 10% of the evangelical community, or some 200,000 people come from a Muslim background. In addition, little energy is being put into evangelising the majority Muslim population. Topping this off, many parts of the church are still influenced by the Animism and spiritism. The power of the occult is yet to be decisively broken. This is the key point when considering how to pray for Burkina Faso as evangelical churches are still absorbing the huge growth of the last century and still developing a strong sense of mission.
10. THE CHURCH IN CHAD: GROWING BUT ONLY IN THE SOUTH
History: The Republic of Chad is a landlocked African country occupying most of Libya’s Saharan border and progressing through the Sahel down into the vast forests of Africa. Beginning in the 7th millennium BC, human populations moved into the Chadian basin in great numbers. By the end of the 1st millennium AD, a series of states and empires had risen and fallen in Chad’s Sahelian Strip, each focused on controlling the trans-Saharan trade routes that passed through the region satisfying the Roman need for salt and slaves.
Traditionally, the fertile oasis region around Lake Chad was a focal point for these trans-Saharan trade routes. In the 7th Century Arab traders penetrated the area. Shortly thereafter, nomads from North Africa entered the Chad basin and eventually established the Kanem Empire which reached its zenith in the 13th Century. Its kings soon converted to Islam, the religion also practiced by the successor kingdom of Bornu. The Bornu fell to the Wadai and Bagirmi empires in the 16th century. By the early 1890s all of these states fell under the control of the Sudanese. Fighting for power and control is in the Chadian blood.
French expeditions advanced into the region in 1890 and by 1913 the conquest of Chad was complete. In 1920 it became a separate colony and it was granted its own territorial legislature in 1946. Full independence was attained on Aug. 11, 1960.
In 1900 Islam was still only the second most dominant religion to animist African beliefs and practices. This changed dramatically after independence as Islam advanced to become a majority religion in the country.
Today: Chad is now 52% Muslim. Being desperately poor, it has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world. Around half the population is 15 years old or under and literacy is just over 50%. Its average income is just 2% of the USA, and that is only because of the discovery of oil which mostly finds its way into the hands of the elite and the army. Droughts are common, as is political instability. Sadly, Chad frequently picks up the gong for the world’s most corrupt country.
Since 2003 the Darfur crisis in Sudan has spilt over the border and destabilised the nation, with hundreds of thousands of Sudanese refugees living in and around camps in eastern Chad. Corruption, lack of economic incentive and government failure to support local agricultural production has meant that the majority of Chadians live via subsistence agriculture and in daily uncertainty and hunger.
True Christianity: Being a French colony, only the Catholic version of Christianity was promoted in Chad up until independence. Since then there has been a strong and steady increase in the number of evangelical believers who now surprisingly number just under 10% of the total population. There are now over 2 million Christians in total out of 13 million people and there are over 6,000 individual church congregations. Unfortunately almost all of these Christians are in the deep south where African Animist religions once prevailed.
Little impact has been made on the dominant northern Muslim community. Since independence Islam has grown from 25% to 57% of the population and is now in the political ascendency. Sadly, there is a huge cultural, ethnic, linguistic, geographic and religious divide between the north and south that is not easily bridged. Subtle pressure is now also being exerted on the country by Muslims in high places in the government and military via financial missions money from the Middle East. The tragedy that is Darfur has also brought many disillusioned Sudanese Muslims from the east into contact with the Gospel for the first time.
At the present time the surge of growth in Christianity seems to have run its course. Many congregations are losing their missions vision. Division between churches is rising, as is nominalism and the occult. Traditional religions are trying to reclaim their lost adherents through such activities as the Yondo initiation rituals. Most new believers just want to find a religion that will deal with the power of the occult that invades so much of life in this part of the world.
To its credit Chad’s government has maintained a strict policy of freedom of religion and welcomes Christian missionaries. Within this framework of tolerance, the number of Muslims coming to Christ continues to grow slowly. Chad’s Arabic Christian radio station is a great resource in these efforts in a country that has such a low level of literacy.
11. THE CHURCH IN COMOROS: TINY BUT BEGINNING TO GROW
History: Comoros consists of a cluster of tiny volcanic islands halfway between the eastern African coast and Madagascar. All islands are densely populated and resource poor. The earliest inhabitants of the islands were likely people from the African Swahili and Bantu cultures from as early as 1000 BC. Shiragi Arabs from Persia first arrived in AD 933, bringing Sunni Islam with them. From the 8th to the 13th centuries they were followed by an influx of Austronesian sailors from Southeast Asia, who had earlier settled nearby Madagascar. Thus Comoros can lay claim to being the first site of the complete mixing of the African, Arabian and Asian people groups.
From the time of the Portugese the island of Anjouan quickly became a major supply port for Europeans crossing the Indian Ocean. The French finally acquired the islands through a cunning mixture of strategies, including that of divide and conquer. After World War II, the islands became a French overseas territory. On July 6, 1975 the Comorian parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence. The representatives of the island of Mayotte abstained and in two subsequent referendums the population of Mayotte voted against independence from France. Mayotte thus remains under French administration and is 9 times richer than the other islands.
Today: The population of just under 800,000 is now a mixture of Arab, African and Malagasy blood lines. There have been over 20 coups and attempted coups since independence. Two smaller islands are also constantly agitating for their own independence. The average income is just 2% of the USA and literacy is low at around 60%.
Some 98% of the population is Muslim and religion dominates life on the islands. Radical Islamic scholars are pushing for stricter Sharia Law. Under the surface of Islam sits a deep attachment to witchcraft, spirit possession and the occult. Many young people have no hope for a better future so resort to drugs, loose living or emigration.
True Christianity: There aren’t many! Because the only colonial influence was French, before 1973 Comoros had virtually zero evangelical Christians. Islam is the state religion and Christian evangelism is strictly forbidden. Those who come to Christ can expect severe reprisals from their family. Persecution is on the rise in equal proportion to Islamic fundamentalism. Radical elements from the Middle East eagerly correct any signs of the weakening of anti-Christian sentiment. Christian converts are still expected to send their children to Islamic madrasas where pupils are taught Islamic principles and learn to read the Qur’an. The vast majority of the 6,500 people who are Christian are Catholic.
In the midst of all this spiritual darkness the number of believers actually continues to grow. However, most new believers are from the minority Reunionese people group, who make up the majority of the 4,500 Catholics in Comoros. Evangelicals have multiplied four fold since 1990 to around 1,300. Every single convert faces social challenges. Muslim Background Believers therefore operate in underground fellowships. New Muslim Background believers have withstood a lot of pressure, and found some acceptance in parts of society. For instance, on the island of Grand Comore these believers have to worship in secret because police, mosque leadership and extremists persecute them. However, their relatives in many cases have accepted their new faith. On the outer island of Anjouan, these believers and their places of worship are often known, but nobody has bothered them.
12. THE CHURCH IN DJIBOUTI: TINY BUT GROWING SLOWLY
History: Djibouti (pronounced Ja-booti) is a small desert country strategically located across the entrance to the Red Sea from Yemen. It is surrounded by the politically unstable countries of Eritrea, and Somalia, with a stable Ethiopia to the west. People have lived here since the dawn of time and had domesticated cattle by the time of Abraham. Djibouti is considered the most likely location of the fabled land known to the ancient Egyptians as Punt.
Strangely, Djibouti did not become a majority Christian area in the first few centuries of the faith as Eritrea and Ethiopia did just up the coast and inland. This meant that Islam spread rapidly when it first arrived in the early years of that faith. Then nothing much happened in this small part of the world for 1,100 years, until the French saw the strategic value in Djibouti’s location and took it for themselves in 1884. A railway to Ethiopia was completed in 1917, was recently upgraded for $4bn, and guarantees the future growth of Djibouti City.
Today: Today the nation of Djibouti is virtually a city-state, with some 88% of its almost 1 million people living in Djibouti City. Two thirds of the population is under age 30 and the average life expectancy is about 65 years. Climatically, it is not a nice place to live! The government was completely reliant on foreign aid, trade exports via the Ethiopian railway and French, Japanese, Chinese and American air bases…everyone needs this spot to stay peaceful! The country is finally growing well as the government gets its act together, GDP has doubled in the last 10 years.
The French took no notice of ethnic boundaries when claiming the country and forced two warring groups, the Afar and the Somalis together. This led to much political instability after independence in 1977, but it has settled down lately. Nearby civil wars have brought in many refugees and these have had to be forcibly removed recently. A staunchly undemocratic and paranoid government seeks to control every aspect of society by stifling the basic freedoms of association, religion and expression. However, this also means the horrific civil wars to its north and south have been avoided in Djibouti.
The constitution declares Freedom of religion but Islam is the state religion, and all laws and policies are influenced by Sharia law. Both Shia and Sunni radicals are using the country as a stop-over on their way to both Yemen’s civil war and the failed state of Somalia.
Recurring droughts beginning in the second half of the 2000s devastated the subsistence pastoralism on which many of Djibouti’s people had depended, leading to chronic malnutrition in nearly a third of the population and chronic overcrowding in the capital.
True Christianity: The evangelical church in Djibouti does exist but only numbers some 1,300 believers. It is, however, growing slightly faster than the population at some around 3.5%. Some evangelical fellowships have also recently sprung up from among the sub-Saharan African immigrants.
Sadly, all our spiritual brothers and sister in Djibouti face difficulties. The few Christians from Muslim backgrounds experience terrible persecution at the hands of local communities and family members. Djibouti’s communal lifestyle makes hiding one’s faith incredibly difficult. If someone is even rumoured to have converted to Christianity, they lose their inheritance rights and often custody of their children. They are also closely monitored by their families, members of the local mosque and the rest of the community. Local authorities always fail to protect Christians from attack, leading to impunity for persecutors. Djibouti needs a breakthrough!
13. THE CHURCH IN EGYPT: THRIVING AND FEARLESS
History: Egypt’s history goes back to just a generation or two after the Tower of Babel, and it features heavily in the Old Testament. It was a great rival to many other empires including the Hyksos, the Libyans, the Nubians, the Assyrians, the Persians, and the Greeks. Then in 30BC it fell to the Roman Empire. The Romans and then the Byzantine Romans ruled until 641AD when it was conquered by the rapidly growing Arab Empire.
The coming of the Arabs changed Egypt’s future forever. Its vast Coptic Christian population was slowly subjected to ever tightening controls and the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam over the centuries. Arabic became the nation’s language, as did a strict from of Sunni Islam. Egypt was the lynch-pin of the Muslim control of all trade from Asia to Europe until Portugal’s Vasco de Gama found a sea passage and broke the monopoly, birthing the global era of European colonialism and the impoverishment of the Middle East until the discovery of oil. The French took control of Egypt in 1798 and then the British took it off them in 1882. Egypt finally regained its independence in 1953.
Today: Egypt is home to about 95 million people who live off just a fraction of its land; the Nile floodplains and its delta. Sixty percent are still poor farmers and the average Egyptian income is just 5% of the USA. Politically it has leaned toward secular military governments even in the face of rising radicalism. The last 10 years has seen many acts of violence perpetrated by radicals and this has galvanised the government to crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Most violence has been directed toward the large Coptic Orthodox Christian minority who number around 10 million.
True Christianity: Good news! Egyptian Christianity is thriving again! There is a widespread revival happening among the Coptic believers from the very top down. Sadly, this is the only Orthodox denomination in the world where any renewal is happening. Prayer and renewal movements have burst onto the scene with all churches seeing a rise in spirituality and numbers. There are no less than seven Christian satellite TV stations beaming all over the Middle East, there are also Christian radio stations and many web-based evangelistic ministries.
Evangelicals now number some 3.5 million and numbers are growing over 5% a year. This is in the face of church bombings, abduction of young Christian women, widespread discrimination and institutionalised abuse. Egypt ranks No. 21 on Open Door’s World Watch List of the 50 nations where Christians face the most persecution. The Egyptian church has rediscovered its roots and is thriving. Christians are active and respected in politics, business and the health professions.
Muslim leaders also pitch in by complaining about the number of Muslims becoming Christians. Some say the number is close to one million but this figure is likely exaggerated for propaganda effect. Muslim background believers face much persecution from family and the government but are encouraged by some high profile former Muslim clerics who have become Christians.
14. THE CHURCH IN ERITREA: PERSECUTED BUT STILL GROWING!
History: The name Eritrea is derived from the ancient Greek name for the Red Sea. It encompasses both the Red Sea lowlands and the northern end of the Ethiopian Highlands. The country’s history is deep, with much influence, and often control, from neighbouring Ethiopia. It adopted Christianity very early and that was followed by Islam which slowly won over large sections of the population. The Turks, then the Italians and then the British took control over the centuries, leading up to independence again in 1993.
Today: Eritrea is a statistical and social nightmare. It ranks last in the world for electricity consumption, tourism, internet use, television ownership and teacher student ratios. It is the world’s fifth poorest country and looks likely to stay that way for a long time. Since independence in 1993 it has been ruled by Isaias Afwerki, a paranoid, brutal warlord who is both a Marxist and a Muslim. To stay in power he has the world’s second highest ratio of soldiers to citizens, crushing all and any who get in his path especially evangelical Christians whom he sees as the greatest threat to his control. Meanwhile the rest of the country lives just above starvation on foreign aid. Satan has this country in his hand.
True Christianity: First the good news: Most the 48% percent of the population that is Christian are from the ancient Eritrean Orthodox denomination and there is a huge wakening spiritual awakening among them. Severe persecution is bringing tens of thousands of new believers into the Kingdom of God from this ancient faith. The number of evangelicals is now well over 100,000, up from just a few thousand in 1960, and now growing very strongly at 5% a year. Towns in the mountains closer to Ethiopia have many believers as that is the natural base of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
Now the bad news: At any time one in thirty believers is in a filthy prison being tortured for their faith. Many will die or come out crippled from this torture. One young woman was kept in a shipping container for two years. Eritrea is up there with North Korea for atrocities committed against Christians. In fact it is called the North Korea of Africa. Yet new leaders keep taking the place of those detained, especially among young men who see the truth and become fearless leaders. A viral house church network is booming throughout the country. Yet most of the Muslims are yet to hear the Gospel as they live down on the coastal regions. Pray for the Beja and Nara peoples on the north coast, some of the hardest to reach for Jesus on the planet
15. THE CHURCH IN GAMBIA: TINY BUT GROWING VERY FAST
History: The Gambia is a tiny elongated country of 2 million people that straddles the first 300km of the Gambia River on the Western coast of Africa. The country is completely surrounded by Senegal. It was the source country of many of today’s Black American citizens, and the first African country ever to host an American President in 1943.
The Gambia first appears on Muslim trade records a thousand years ago and was soon dominated by the powerful Mali Empire from 1200-1400. In the 16th Century the first Europeans arrived and this eventually led to a protracted dispute between France and England for control of the area. The eventual success of the of the British is the reason the North American slave trade being based here and why it speaks English in a part of the world that speaks French.
Gambian citizens fought for the British in both the First and Second World Wars. The push for emancipation gathered steam in the 1920’s and eventually led to independence in 1965.
Today: After The Gambia received its independence it’s politics slowly disintegrated into several military coups. Multiparty elections in 2018 eventually resulted in a return to democracy, but only after UN intervention. The country is resource poor so relies on subsistence agriculture which employs 75% of the population. It has an income of just 1% of the USA and over half the population lives in or around the capital of Banjul on the coast. There is a small tourism industry here catering to European sun lovers and birdwatchers.
The country has a high level of religious tolerance even though it is 90% Muslim. Gambian Islam is lived out far more gently than in other Islamic areas because so many ethnicities share the country. However, with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, there are dangers for missionaries serving in the country, with a British chaplain serving the local army being arrested for sedition in 2008.
True Christianity: The traditional church comprises about 5% of the population with the Catholics being by far the largest group. Historically the Christians have been fairly complacent in regards to evangelism due to respect for the status quo. However, since the 1980’s, a time of political and social unrest, there has been strong growth in evangelicals who have multiplied 10 fold, now number about 15,000, and are growing at 9% a year. This growth rate will eventually peter out as they begin to evangelise the Muslim majority instead of the religiously traditional Christians.
Believers committed to evangelism and local missions work are few, education is low, resources are lacking and most Christian workers, who are already overstretched, do not want to leave the coast to evangelise the hinterland where they have to learn new languages. Congregations of Muslim Background Believers are growing and there are now two YWAM training bases in the country.
16. THE CHURCH IN GUINEA: SMALL AND INTROPSECTIVE
History: Guinea (an ancient Arab term for black people) is a smallish Muslim-majority country on the south west coast of Africa. Climatically it ranges from savannah in the north to deep tropical rain forest in the south. It is one of the wettest countries in the world and spawns four major rivers. It was part of the Arab trade routes for centuries and fell in an out with the prevailing empires of that region including the Ghana, Songhai, and Mali kingdoms. By 1235 its rulers were making a Hajj to Mecca. Along with most countries on the west coast, it was a source of slaves for the new world. The French took the area in 1890 and gave it its independence in 1958.
Today : In recent times Guinea has made headlines for all the wrong reasons. After independence it was subject to coups, strong-arm leaders and a terrible two decade experiment with Marxism which saw the infrastructure collapse and the people impoverished. In 1970 some 50,000 people were executed after yet another attempted coup. Then in 2104 Guinea was the epicentre of an Ebola outbreak that grabbed world headlines. Literacy is a mere 45%, almost half the population is under 15, there is virtually no infrastructure and the average income is just 1% of the USA. However, under the current president democracy and economic growth has finally taken off in a big way with Chinese investment.
Guinea’s relationship with Islam is mixed. The three dominant people groups are all strongly Muslim. However, for many people the animistic spirit world is the daily priority with witchcraft very common. On the other hand almost all women suffer genital mutilation. Religious tolerance was common practice until a recent push for more Islamisation. The country hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring war-torn countries and many of these are former rebels stirring up trouble in the predominately forested, Christian south east
True Christianity: The picture doesn’t look good. Only 3% of the country profess any type of Christianity and the Catholic Church is the dominant expression. The true church of Jesus has not yet reached 1% of the total population but it has quadrupled in the last 50 years. After growing strongly in the hard years, there was some falling away after 2000 as nominal Christians departed. The church is currently growing more slowly than the population and is yet to significantly penetrate the Muslim majority in the culturally dominate Fulbe and Mandinka people groups. Scripture translation is an urgent need. Of the 34 languages there is only one full Bible translation and 10 New Testaments. Translations are underway in 10 more.
17. THE CHURCH IN GUINEA BISSAU: HEALTHY AND GROWING
History: Guinea Bissau is a tiny, struggling country on the west coast of Africa. It was slowly carved out of the existing kingdom of Gabu, part of the Mali Empire, by the Portugese from the 16th Century and this is the prime reason for its separate existence from what was French Guinea. For hundreds of years it was part of what was called The Slave Coast. The Portugese were prevented from exploring the interior of their colony until the 19th Century as the Gabu controlled the inland and profited greatly as middlemen in the slave trade.
In the 1950’s an armed guerrilla movement erupted and fought the Portugese with help from Cuba and Russia. Independence was declared in 1973 and recognised in 1974. A one-party Marxist government ruled for the next 20 years. Unstable leadership has continued ever since.
Today: Guinea Bissau is one of the poorest countries on earth, with an income of just 0.5% of the USA. Life expectancy is about 50 years, literacy is abysmal and nearly half the population is under 15 years. Sadly, Guinea Bissau is now a prime trans-shipment station for cocaine on its way from South America to Europe. This is corrupting many people and potentially its institutions.
Around half the population is Muslim, but they are strongly influenced by traditional Animist religious practices. The next largest religion is African Animism. Interestingly, according to the Pew Research Centre and World Atlas, the influence of Islam is now falling below 50%. If so this is a rare event in a Muslim majority country.
True Christianity: Some 20% of the country is nominally inside the Christian religion, with half of these being Catholic. Evangelism was banned before independence but with the many political and humanitarian crises that followed, evangelicals soon gained the respect of all successive governments. They now number around 2% of the population but are growing healthily at over 6% a year.
Christian programs are now broadcast on national radio in Portugese Creole and there is now a dedicated Christian radio station for this largely illiterate country. An increasing number of missionaries are arriving from other countries to help the local church which is solid, mature and indigenous. Brazil has recently taken over from westerners as the main sending country and there is a solid program of training for new leaders. It is estimated that by 2050 the nation will be 30% Christian, and most of that figure will be evangelical.
18. THE CHURCH IN INDIA: WATCH OUT WORLD!
Now we look at India, which does not have a Muslim majority, but never-the-less has nearly 200 million Muslim citizens, or one in seven on the whole planet! I lived in New Delhi for a year in 1981 and call India my second home. It is an extraordinary place and something spiritually explosive is happening there that will soon change the world, and Islam!
History: India has an ancient, complex and often historically impenetrable past. It was home to the Bronze Age Harapan civilization, was then invaded by the Iranian Aryans who subjugated the Dravidian race and pushed them to the south. It was also invaded by Alexander the Great, the Muslim Empire and the British. It birthed two of the world’s largest religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. Both Buddhism and Islam tried and failed to conquer the might and heart of the ancient Hindu religion. Instead, India eventually exported its Hinduism, and then its new Buddhism across South East Asian and up into China and Afghanistan. In some places it stayed, in others Islam destroyed the exports. Today it exports the New Age movement to the West. In amongst all this religious confetti there appeared a spearhead of Christianity in the 1st Century with the arrival of the Apostle Thomas on a Roman Trading ship!
India is an enigma to most Westerners: It is vast and old with mind-boggling statistics. It has 456 distinct languages. It is home to 2,500 distinct people groups, 500 cities with over 100,000 people and the world’s fastest growing major economy. It oozes confidence via a highly educated, rapidly expanding middle class sitting alongside a soul-destroying system of religiously sanctioned racial discrimination of castes. It squeezes 1.3 billion people in an area one third the size of China and is consequently suffering massive environmental degradation and a large outflow of people. Unlike many emerging economies it has the rule of law and a functioning democracy thanks to the British. India could very well be THE superpower before the end of this century with its 1.7 billion people against China’s ever shrinking 1 billion.
True Christianity: In a nutshell, Christianity came with Thomas, thrived and then settled down in the southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Then came the British with the likes of William Carey and a small army of missionaries. In the Twentieth Century the South Indian Christians started evangelising the Hindu heartland in the north, and I joined them in that task. Now in the 21st Century a fourth wave of New Testament style house churches is taking the north by storm while mega-churches are springing up like mushrooms in the south.
There is an amazing spiritual transformation taking place in India that I believe is unparalleled in the history of Christianity. I saw it firsthand in 2009 when I attended the Inaugural World House Church Conference. Only at the end were we introduced to who our servants for the conference really were. These 12 or so young men were the leaders of movements numbering from 50,000 to 300,000. We have kept in touch with one of these men and his movement has grown from 80,000 to nearly 1 million since then. These movements have deliberately reproduced the New Testament model of church which is being led by the Holy Spirit instead of man. The results are astounding. You can read about them here, here, here and here, and listen to one leader explain his transformation here.
The knock on effect on the Muslims of India is going to be huge in the decades ahead. One network that sent me a report after the conference was seeing 25% growth in Muslims coming to Jesus and being discipled every year for the first decade of this century. One network leader told me several years ago when visiting Australia that he was heading back to baptise the head Imam of Chandigah after seeing him won to Jesus. These new believers will be the bridgehead into the vast Muslim community in North India and the Middle East. Prayer is changing the future of this most important of nations and those changes will ripple out into the countries that surround India.
Below is an example of one house church get together belonging to the network led by Anaroop Swamy, a leader whom we met personally at the conference mentioned above. This extract highlights succinctly what is now happening in India:
For about 2 1/2 hours (the time flew by), with no leader directing the action, person after person shared a testimony, a song, a prayer, a scripture, a teaching or encouragement; one lady even shared a remarkable parable. No one asked for testimonies or anything else; people just spontaneously shared. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that when the church gathers each one has something to contribute. (1 Cor 14:26) This is what I saw. Each of these people (about 45 of them) were constantly winning others to the Lord through taking the time to be building new relationships and in this context of care, introducing them to Jesus. Many testified of meeting the Lord through the kindness of a stranger who became a brother or sister. I heard many testimonies of remarkable healings and deliverance. Two women shared about raising the dead. One lady raised a man from the dead simply by preaching the Gospel over his body until he opened his eyes and sat up! Another lady shared excitedly about the 22 people she baptized in a day. Another shared that she had asked the Lord for 300 disciples (new believers who make other disciples). She announced that since she had now done that, she was asking for 3,000 more disciples. All over the room they spoke out how many disciples they were asking the Lord for in the next month. The smallest number I heard was 5; the highest was 40––for one month. The time finished with communion and taking a meal together.
There is no surer sign of the accuracy of the above assessment than the increasingly frequent reports of rising persecution of Christians. Satan is worried.
19. THE CHURCH IN INDONESIA: WHAT A HARVEST!
History: Indonesia is a vast archipelago of 17,500 islands and 250 million people standing between Asia and Australia. Its history goes back to a vast migration of peoples into the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Madagascar thousands of years ago. With the cultivation of rice in the rich tropical volcanic soils there soon developed many people and kingdoms, leading to Java becoming one of the most densely populated places on earth today. Large amounts of international trade between India, the Middle East and China meant many religions took root in what is now Indonesia. Animism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam each flourished in succession, and now it is Christianity’s turn.
The Europeans arrived in 1512 and this eventually led to occupation by the Portuguese, Dutch, British and Japanese. Unilateral independence for the long-suffering Indonesians was finally declared in 1945 and this led to several decades of military government which included the killing of 500,000 accused Communists in 1965 after an attempted Communist takeover. A staggering 5% of the Balinese were executed in this reign of terror.
Today: Indonesia has over 750 and distinct people groups and 722 languages. Most of these groups are the dominant Indo-Malays who, along with the Chinese who are 4% of the population, control the wealth and politics. Indonesia has now morphed into one of the world’s largest democracies and with that has come economic expansion at around 5% a year for the last decade. However, this growth in the economy and in population has led to large scale corruption and environmental damage to its forests.
Islam is the dominant religion and it gives itself preferential treatment in most spheres of public life. Intolerant Islamisation is pervasive and growing. Having said that, only about 1/3 of those counted as Muslims actively practice the faith and are adamantly opposed to any Christian existence in Indonesia. Some 500,000Maluku and Sulawesi Christians are now displaced because of their violence. Another third are nominal and another third follow Kejawan (a religion that combines animistic, Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi, beliefs and practices) that predated the arrival of Islam. Many of these last two groups are open to True Christianity.
True Christianity: After the attempted Communist coup in 1965, the government demanded all citizens adhere to one of six official religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. This eventually resulted in over 2 million Muslims identifying as Christians for the first time! This windfall has now grown to many more millions as each generation enters their new faith at a deeper level. Forty million Indonesians now identify as Christian with some 15-20 million of these being evangelical. The church is strong, growing, prayerful and unified. Evangelism is vibrant, even to the Muslim community. This has resulted in somewhere between 5 and 10 million more Muslims becoming Christians in recent decades. This is by far the highest number of Muslim Background Believers (MBB’s) for any single Muslim majority country in the world…so far!
20. THE CHURCH IN IRAN: % GROWTH IS THE HIGHEST IN THE WORLD!
History: Iran, called Persia until 1935, has a very deep history as it sits on the doorstep of human civilization. It’s cultural and political significance throughout history goes far beyond today’s national borders. All surrounding countries have been deeply influenced by its presence. In fact, at one time some 40% of the world’s population were under ancient Persian Imperial control and influence.
It is mentioned many times in the Bible, beginning with the events of King Xerxes and Esther. Many other Persians leaders are mentioned in the Bible such as Cyrus the Great who freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon, helped them to go back to the Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. Some historians believe that one or all of the three wise men who brought gifts to Jesus at the time of his birth were Persian. They are referred to as Magi and a magus, the singular of magi, was a Zoroastrian priest. Finally, Persians were some of the first people to convert to Christianity (Acts 2:9).
The Imperial Persian cult of Zoroastrianism persecuted the new Christian faith mercilessly until the sixth century because it saw Christians as agents of their arch enemy, Pagan Rome and then the Catholic Byzantines. But by the Sixth Century many leading Persians had become Nestorian Christians and the church was well organised, had sent missionaries to all of Central Asia and even all the way to China in one of the great missionary movements in the history of the world that is now largely forgotten. When the Persian Empire finally fell to the Byzantines in 622 AD (curiously the same year Islam chose to start its calendar) a new era of Arab control slowly developed in the Middle East, emerging from the Byzantine and Persian proxy armies, the Ghassanids and the Lakhmids.
In time Persia regained its cultural and military hegemony over the region as the centre of Islamic law, history and culture from 750 AD until 1220. This is considered Islam’s Golden Age. But then 90% of Persia’s people were horrifically slaughtered at the hands of the Mongols in 1219! Persia took many centuries to recover from this devastation and limped into modern history as a much reduced shadow of its former self.
Today: Iran, like most of the Middle East, was deeply humiliated by Western “Christian colonialism” but always retained certain freedoms. The 20th Century saw Iran ruled by a shah until Western powers discovered oil and started meddling in internal affairs. This resulted in a CIA sponsored coup in 1941, which then inspired an Islamic counter-revolution in 1980. Iran has been a hard line Shia Islamic theocratic state ever since.
With Islamic theocracy has come government control of all aspects of society, and economic disaster. The government controls 80% of the economy, most of which is oil related, and the army controls the majority of that share. Corruption is rife, unemployment peaked at 30% and average incomes are now just 10% of the USA.
With the revolution came a call to have sons for the revolution, and the population doubled in short order. Some 60% of the population is now under 30 years of age. This is now a huge headache for the old guard who control society. The youth hate their government, and because the government rules in the name of Shia Islam, they hate Islam as well. Many have turned to drugs imported from Afghanistan and are dropping out of society. They feel hopeless. This predicament is common to the youth of most Islamic countries that adopt hard line Islamist policies, howbeit after a decade or two of disillusion.
True Christianity: Iran has the oldest of these Islamist governments. Consequently, the second generation is turning away from its ideas. In percentage terms Iran now has the fastest growing Christian population on the planet at around 20% a year. The church is doubling every 4 years and it is mostly young people. Dreams and visions are commonly involved in peoples journeys to faith.
In 1980 there were fewer than 500 known evangelical believers in a country of 40 million. Now there are close to 400,000 out of 80 million and the numbers are forecast to reach 3-5 million by 2030, 10-15 million by 2050 and…drumroll…Iran is on track at current growth rates to become the first ex-Muslim country to come back to Christianity since the Arab invasions 1,400 years ago. All this in a country that has the death penalty for apostasy!
If Iran is a template for other radical Muslim Islamist countries, then we will see a rapid acceleration in Christianity in many other countries in the decade ahead!
Almost half of those Iranians who have fled the country are also now evangelical Christians. The Iranian Christians, both internal and externally, are seeding many countries around it with the gospel, not least of which is Afghanistan. Farsi language satellite Christian TV and web-based ministries are now reaching into millions of Iranian homes. I personally know one Iranian refugee in Brisbane who has led 50 others to Jesus and started a church
21. THE CHURCH IN IRAQ: BRUISED BUT NEW SHOOTS ARE GROWING
History: Iraq lies at the epicentre of all human civilisation. As part of the larger Fertile Crescent, the land once known as Mesopotamia saw the earliest emergence of civilization after the flood. So many names and places from Iraq appear in the Old Testament it would take far too long to mention them all. Suffice to say it is the second most mentioned country in the Bible and was home to Adam and Eve Abraham, Amos, Daniel and Esther. Its where the Israelites were exiled to and where the three wise men came from.
Empires such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians came and went over several millennia BC. After the fall of the Babylonian Empire, Mesopotamia fell under Persian and then Greek rule. By the time of Christ it was once again under Persian Sassanid control and they fought the Romans for six hundred years in one of the longest conflicts in human history.
By 750AD the Baghdad-based Persians, who were wiped out by the Byzantines in 630AD, were back in control of the newly minted Arab Empire, and their scholars largely created the origin myths that we now associate with Muhammad, Mecca and the birth of Islam. It was Christian scholars who translated the newly-arrived Greek classics into Arabic, thereby ushering in the Muslim golden age and assuring the transfer of Greek learning back to Europe during the Crusades and intellectually transforming that continent. Between 750 and 1500AD most of the large Nestorian and Syrian Christian population slowly gave in to Islamic political pressure. Yet many of these ancient churches remained faithful and as late the early 20th Century Iraq was still home to a million Assyrian and Nestorian Christians.
Today: But sadly, not anymore. The huge upheaval that was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the turmoil of the Gulf Wars that followed and the genocide of ISIS has decimated the traditional churches, which mostly lived in the north where ISIS plundered and massacred. Islamists continue to torment traditional Christians largely at will across Iraq and masses continue to emigrate. However, Christians are not the only minority to suffer in recent years. The Yazidis, Kurds, Bedouin and others are also in the headlights of bigoted, violent Islamism. In fact the whole country splinters down ethnic and religious lines: Sunni v Shia, Arab v Kurd, Muslim v minorities, even ancient Christian denomination v denomination!
The nation has been an oil-based economy since Genesis 11:3 and is still living off oil revenues with a very unevenly distributed income level of 6% of the USA. Corruption is rampant, infrastructure is in desperate need of rebuilding after repeated wars. Some 600,000 have been killed and 2 million made homeless. Eighty percent of the population is under 40 years of age and unemployment is huge. Iraq is a mess!
True Christianity: And yet into this crazy mix of ethnic, religious, political and economic turmoil God has birthed something new; a growing and vibrant Muslim-background evangelical church. Before the Gulf Wars there were fewer than a thousand believers in the country, and that included those within the older denominations with roots back to the New Testament. Now there are somewhere between fifty and a hundred thousand new and strong evangelical Christians and they are growing around 4% a year. For over a thousand years the traditional denominations never countenanced the idea of reaching out to the Muslim majority, so God has raised up new wineskins for a new era of harvest. Some new MBB believers have even come from ISIS backgrounds and are running churches that reach out to hurting people! Many Muslims have come to Jesus through dreams and visions of Christ, through acts of love from caring Christians. There is even a church movement among the Kurds of the north for the first time. For the time being they are much more open to the Gospel than other Muslims in Iraq.
22. THE CHURCH IN JORDAN: BOTH SHRINKING AND GROWING
History: The modern day Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is the next-door neighbour to Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. It is mostly desert but it is strategically located at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia. It was once ruled by the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites of Biblical fame and these Semitic people are direct descendants of Esau. In fact its capital Amman is actually named after the Ammonites of Genesis 19:36-38. It was from Jordan that Moses looked into the Promised Land and it is in present day Jordan that we find the spot where Jesus was baptised. In the New Testament era the Nabataeans and the Romans ruled what is now Jordan as its position was pivotal to the famed Silk Road trade so inviting their control.
The area of modern day Jordan embraced Christianity very early, beginning with Paul’s journeys. It was in Jordan that the Syriac Church of the East, one of the main branches of early Christianity (and the source of two core doctrines of Islam, but that’s another story) thrived for hundreds of years. With the coming of Islam the area was ruled first by the Umayyad’s and then by the Baghdad-based Abbasid’s until their fall in the 13th Century. The Ottoman Turks then ruled through until 1916 and the British ruled Jordan until full independence was achieved in 1946.
Today: Jordan’s 10 million people are ruled by a sensible constitutional monarch who reserves 9 out of 130 seats in Parliament for Christians. Jordan’s fragile oil-less economy chugs along on tourism and agricultural products even though it is one of the driest countries on earth. It tries to get on well with all its neighbours, diplomacy being the key to its survival. To that end it is one of only two Islamic countries that have made peace with Israel and it is a key ally of the USA in the Middle East.
Jordan is also stuck in the middle of multiple sets of intransigent conflicts. There is Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank, as well as the never-ending Palestinian problem. The Palestinians now actually outnumber the Jordanians in their own land. Then there is the Syrian civil war which sent 1.4 million Syrians into Jordan, severely straining every fabric of society. Iraq’s earlier instability sent another million into Jordan and half have not gone home. And let’s not forget the ever-increasing agitation from Islamists for a more fundamentalist, intolerant future for Jordan. The country is remarkably stable given such a turbulent neighbourhood.
True Christianity: However, times are getting tougher for the remnant church which has been in Jordan for 2,000 years. From some 30% of the population in 1930, Christians now number just 2.2% due to high levels of Muslim immigration and Christian emigration. Jordan’s Christians are very well integrated into society and can be found at all levels. This has created a reluctance to preach to Gospel to the unsaved Muslims.
On the other hand there are many new converts who are invigorating our faith. Secret believers are present within the Muslim community even though it is illegal to evangelise Muslims and for a Muslim to convert to another faith. Life is very tough for these people in this still tribal society where group-think rules. In fact the government closely monitors all Christian evangelism and tries to stop it where it can. This activity includes the recent expulsion of many expatriate westerners. The total number of born-again believers in Jordan now numbers some 20,000, doubling since 1990. Thankfully the numbers of traditional Christians who are emigrating have has slowed to a trickle and the evangelical church is now growing at 3% a year, mainly among this nominal Christian community. However, there has been no real breakthrough among Muslims in Jordan even though there is a wellspring of interest in Jesus and the Bible from within the Muslim community. Are we at the early stages of a move of the Holy Spirit?
23. THE CHURCH IN KAZAKHSTAN: REBORN AFTER EXTERMINATION
History: Kazakhstan looks small on a map but is the same size as Western Australia and four times the size of Texas. Its huge! From ancient times it was integral to the Silk Road trade between the Romans and the Chinese. The first mention of the Kazakhs that you would be familiar with come from a surprising source: Colossians 3:11 where they are called the Scythians. They were already well known by Paul because of their vast Scythian empire, the first to master the art of horse mounted open territory warfare. Alexander the Great came here once in 329 BC and encountered great resistance from the Scythians.
As the centuries came and Kazakhstan it was also inhabited by Mongolian and Turkic peoples. It was almost part of China, but not quite, almost part of Russia, but not quite, briefly part of Christianity but it didn’t last, then it became part of Persia, but not quite, then part of Islam, but not quite! Kazakhstan was always so far from anywhere on the super-continent that was never stuck to being part of somewhere.
The people were always nomadic (think round yurts and livestock dotted everywhere) and the largest settlements were just forts and towns on the great ancient trade routes along the northern edge of the Tian Shan mountain range. In the 13th Century the great Mongol cavalry swept through the Kazakhstan steppe on its way to Europe. In the 15th Century a distinctive Kazakh identity began to develop among the Turkic tribes of the region. The Kazakh language appeared a century later and Kazakh political independence reached its peak just before the Russians conquered it in the early 1800’s. Perhaps the saddest episode in Kazakhstan’s history came when Stalin decided in 1932 that nomads were a political threat so he herded the entire Kazakh population into refugee camps. Some 1.2 million people died of starvation soon after and a unique 2,000 year old culture was ruthlessly stamped out.
Today: Kazakhstan is the ultimate half way country: from north to south, from east to west, from Western to Asian, from Islamic to secular. It embraces all of these influences. When you are there the people look Asian, but they act European due to the Russian influence. Their inner cities are Russian, with their parks, beautiful gardens, opera houses and concert halls. Their religion is Islam but you would never know, as they love their alcohol and their faith is more likely to be in shamanism.
The country is booming economically because it is resource rich. However it has been ruled by a single dictator since Soviet times and the national income somehow stays in the cities, and in the hands of favoured individuals. People are free to say what they like about their leader, but not to put those same thoughts online or in print. It is not a free country, but the people are happy. Secularism runs deep here but Islamists are agitating for more rights. The government is paying lip service to Islam but makes sure hot-headed Islamic radicals disappear never to be seen again. The President once famously said that the country was ruthlessly controlled by one ideology for decades. It will not be controlled by a second.
True Christianity: Kazakhstan, like all of Central Asia, was part of the once great Nestorian church of the East which stretched all the way to China. There were even mass conversions in the 7th and 11th centuries. Some 2 million Kazakh’s can trace their roots to the Naiman Turkic people group, who remained Christian from some time after the arrival of Islam. Unfortunately all eventually converted to the new faith and the history of Christianity in this region has literally evaporated and is waiting for an intrepid historian to piece together what happened.
Fast forward to 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the first time in nearly a thousand years evangelical missionaries arrived in large numbers. Most of the 100,000 conversions that came in the next decade were from the now 30% of the population who are European and nominally Russian Orthodox. However some have come to faith from the Kazakhs and there are now some 20,000 believers from among them, mostly in the cities. My brother was even evangelised by a Kazakh taxi driver once!
Sadly, believers operate at the whim of an antagonistic government. Most churches are monitored. I spent some time while there in 2016 with a local pastor, encouraging him and his family in his work which was a traditional church modelled on western cultural practices. Both he and his wife were saved through Teen Challenge when it came in via an Australian missionary in the early 1990’s, from my home town of the Sunshine Coast! He spoke of secret evangelical churches that had survived the Soviet occupation and would not identify with the newly arrived Western versions of the faith. He also spoke of mega-churches of 5,000 that had their own TV programs beamed from Almaty. The Christian landscape here is varied to say the least. Sadly though there is little Christian impact outside the cities.
Some months after we left the government shut down his church. I spent the next few months walking this pastor through the process of becoming an underground house church and teaching him to let the Holy Spirit do the leading.
24. THE CHURCH IN KURDISTAN: REBORN CENTURIES AFTER COLLAPSE
History: The Kurds, descended from the Hurrians, Medes and Symbian’s, are a mountain people with a history that goes back as far as human civilisation can go. As such it must be remembered that when Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel talk about the Medes in the Old Testament, they are talking about the ancestors of today’s Kurds.
You name any Middle Eastern empire and the Kurds will have been part of it or trampled by it. By the Roman era they were known as the Corduenes and controlled the restless mountainous borderlands between Roman Anatolia and northern Persia (south East Turkey today). They were aligned with Rome against Persia so were in the news just as much then as now. Kurdistan in the Middle Ages was a collection of semi-independent and independent states called emirates. It was at this time that Yizidism emerged as a Kurdish breakaway religion from Islam.
After the 1918 collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Kurds were promised their own home land. However, the Europeans reneged on their promises and in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne the Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Today : The Kurds are the largest people group in the world (30-45m depending on the different ways to count them) without their own country which is why we hear of them so often in the news. For that reason I have included them in my weekly prayer newsletter.
The Kurds now live in at least 35 countries but are mainly concentrated in South Eastern Turkey, Northern Iraq Northern Syria and Eastern Iran. Half live in Turkey. Each of these countries now has its own Kurdish separatist movement. They are therefore treated badly by their host governments, who have tried to forcibly assimilate them into the majority population of Arabs, Persians, or Syrians. In most countries, with the exception of Autonomous Kurdistan (the KAR) in Northern Iraq, Kurds are poorer than other citizens because of the mountains they live in and their resistance to government control.
Saddam Hussein almost destroyed the Kurds in Iraq, but now they are protected by international law and are thriving, with their own parliament and army to control their own oil fields. With the near collapse of the Syrian government and with the support of the Americans, the Kurds have taken control of large parts of that country, even installing a female mayor in Raqqa, old headquarters of Islamic State!. It remains to be seen what happens next, perhaps they will finally get their homeland.
True Christianity: Many Kurds became Christians in the first two centuries of our faith via the apostle Andrew who preached to the Scythians and Parthians, on the north eastern end of the Persian Empire. Then came the Syriac missionaries a few centuries later. In some places they were in the majority, outnumbering the imperial religion of Zoroastrianism. Christianity survived for several centuries after the invasion of the Arabs in the 7th Century but slowly declined to nearly nothing by the time of the European Empires. However, because it was close to Christian Armenia, there were always some Kurds who retained their traditional Nestorian Christian rituals right down to within a 150 years ago.
Fast forward to today and we now find the Kurds much more receptive to western influence and ideas than their dominant Arab neighbours. Most Kurds would still call themselves Muslim, but they are very different to the average Muslim. Because they have suffered as a minority and know they were once Christians, they are much more tolerant of other ethnic and religious groups. Kurds are now coming to Jesus in small numbers. In Iraqi Kurdistan there are increasing numbers of Christian converts and a growing Christian presence that is tolerated by the KAR government. Many Christian NGO’s base themselves in the capital of Erbil to help with the large refugee crises created by the Iraq and Syrian wars and the scourge of Islamic State. However the 200,000 Assyrian Christian refugees now living inside the KAR face some discrimination at the hands of the majority Kurds.
Over in northern Syria the presence of IS has stunned once content Muslims into re-examining their religious ties. This has led to the opening of churches in once unthinkable locations such as Kobani. In 2017 the first Bible in Sorani, the second most spoken Kurdish dialect was finally printed and is now available as an app and there are Kurdish Christian websites no popping up to help share the Good News. The Bible is also now available in the Kurmanji language for Turkish Kurds. In an interesting twist, many Kurds have begun to convert back to the ancient Syrian Orthodox faith of their ancestors and there are some God-fearing Orthodox priests who are discipling them.
25. THE CHURCH IN KUWAIT: A GROWING UNDERGROUND CHURCH
History: Being located at the top of the Persian Gulf near the delta of the Euphrates River, Kuwait was always going to be a place of significance for trade between east and west. To name just one significant group, about 2000 BC merchants from Abraham’s home city of Ur established a trading city in northern Kuwait and became some of the world’s earliest maritime traders, pioneering the trade routes to the Indus Valley civilisation in modern day Pakistan and northern India. In 600 BC the Persians took control of the area. The earliest recorded mention of Kuwait was in 150 AD in the treatise called Geography by Greek scholar Ptolemy.
In 636 AD as the Persian Empire collapsed, Kuwait came under control of the new Arab Empire, and eventually the Islamic culture and religion. In 1521 AD Kuwait came under Portugese control as the Europeans began to use superior maritime skills wrestle control of the east-west trade links from the Arabs. It then came under the control of the Ottoman Empire and eventually passed to British control in 1899. The discovery of oil in the 20th Century transformed Kuwait From a poor backward province into the nation we see today, with independence coming in 1961.
Today: Because Kuwait had 10% of the world’s oil reserves and great wealth it eventually caught the eye of Saddam Hussein who invaded in 1991, devastating the economy and incurring the wrath of the USA and its allies. The country recovered and is once again prospering, but with 95% of income coming from oil. Incomes are equal to the USA, literacy is 100% and the country is stable. At 4 million people, Kuwait is a nation of immigrant workers who make up 60% of the population and 78% of the workforce. It is thus a country whose economic prosperity is not on firm ground.
True Christianity: In the Christian Era the region around modern day Kuwait belonged to the wider Persian Gulf Christian community, especially of the Nestorian and Syriac Christian denominations. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of a Nestorian monastery and township on the island of Failaka dating to the 5th Century and lasting until the 10th Century. The church was eventually squashed through Islamic pressure so that Kuwait eventually became 100% Muslim.
In the modern era the church was reborn with the arrival of the British. However it was not until the first Gulf War in 1991 that things began to change rapidly. It is a point worth noting from my research that every time a Muslim country goes through a war, or is subject to a generation of Islamist government suppression, the Church of Jesus Christ begins to grow rapidly. Kuwait is one of those examples. The evangelical population has grown rapidly since 1991 and is now some 2% of the population.
Importantly the underground Arab Kuwaiti church is gaining strength, numbers and maturity. Because of the relatively tolerant government (mainly because most workers are foreign) Kuwaiti Christians are beginning to go public with their faith. Boldness and open witness are the hallmarks of the Kuwaiti Arab church.
Such is the growth that many parents are now sending their children to study within the Middle East as so many Kuwaiti students were coming back Christians after studying in the West. The growth rate for the Kuwaiti church is around 9%, one of the highest in the world and there is strong growth even among the expatriate workers who now crowd out the compounds where they are allowed to gather.
26. KYRGYZSTAN: A SMALL AND STRUGGLING CHURCH
History: Kyrgyzstan was at the heart of the Silk Road trade for millennia because of its east-west oriented mountains and subsequent abundant food and water supply. The ancient nomads pioneered the many local trade routes before horse traders from China took them over and started trading further and further west, eventually reaching Europe. In fact the southern city of Osh was famously called the half-way point in this once great trade route. Various peoples, including the Buddhist Kushans and Uyghurs, ruled these lands before the Mongols invaded in the 13th Century. This invasion was devastating, costing the Kyrgyz their written language and their independence.
A century later the Turco-Mongolian empire of Timur brought devastation to the Christian communities of the entire Central Asian Region, reportedly killing over 7 million believers in his Satanic purge of Christianity form his empire in the name of Islamic domination. In 1775 the Russians, under Catherine the Great, began to take an interest in the Kyrgyz people and region. In 1876 they formally annexed most of central Asia. This was the first and only time Central Asia has been ruled by Europeans. Eventually Communism was brutally imposed on the Kyrgyz, supressing Islam at all levels.
Today: In 1991 Kyrgyzstan finally gained its long awaited independence only to be ruled by two corrupt dictators, both removed through popular revolt. It has since become one of the few former Soviet Bloc countries that has successfully transitioned to a democracy and is friendly with the west, even allowing US troops to use its airport during the Afghan War.
With only 6 million people, so much mountainous terrain and few natural resources, Kyrgyzstan remains a poor country with an income of just 2% of the USA. Consequently, half a million Kyrgyz have had to seek work abroad, mainly to the north in Kazakhstan.
Most Russians left the country soon after independence, but they left a distinctly European landscape and culture in the Capital city of Bishkek. German is also widely spoken in Kyrgyzstan as it was where Stalin sent many of his German prisoners of war. At independence the country was 5% German! Nearly all have since left. However, if you travel several mountain ranges to the south of the country there is a distinctly Islamic ethnicity, culture and identity, and it also much poorer. That’s what I found when I was there in 2016.
As with most Central Asian countries, Islam is on the rise since the fall of Communism. Some 2,000 mosques were built with Middle Eastern money between 2000 and 2005. Increasing Islamisation has created an atmosphere of fear for the few remaining Russian Orthodox and newer evangelical believers. However, most Kyrgyz people are still nominal Muslims and we met some while there who were proud to talk of their obvious shamanist beliefs.
True Christianity: Because it was on the Silk Road, the Nestorian church with its amazingly active missionary movement came to Kyrgyzstan very early in the history of Christianity. Several uniquely Christian cities have left remains in the fertile valleys of Kyrgyzstan even to this day. We saw a stone image of Christ in 2016 while visiting an archaeological site of the Kyrgyz Medieval city of Balasagun destroyed by the Mongols.
With the fall of Communism there was a short window of opportunity for Christian missions within Kyrgyzstan and the church grew impressively in those few years. Today believers number some 50,000 or around 1% of the country, are centred in the northern city of Bishkek, and are culturally Western in their Church practice. This is a legacy of 120 years of a “real church” having a building and being registered with the government. This is unfortunate as visible Western displays of faith are associated with European subjugation and Islamic repression in the minds of the Kyrgyz peoples. Kyrgyzstan awaits a truly indigenous expression of the Christian faith such as we are seeing in Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are signs that this may finally be taking shape via a fledgling house church movement in the south.
27. THE CHURCH IN LEBANON: LARGE, ANCIENT BUT BARELY ALIVE
History: Lebanon (meaning The White One, referring to the 160km of snow-capped mountains that run parallel to the coast in winter, Jeremiah 18:14) is a small coastal country on the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Its history is deep, going back to the dawn of human civilisation. It was the home of the infamous Canaanites at the time Abraham came through on his way to Egypt (Genesis 12:6). Centuries later it was actually part of the territory promised to the Israelites when they came back to the Promised Land out of Egypt (Joshua 1:4, Joshua 3:10). the Song of Songs – are full of praise for Lebanon’s nature, wild animals, waters, trees, flowers, wine, plants and the legendary snow of its high mountains. Lebanese timber was used to build Solomon’s temple. All up Lebanon is mentioned 71 times in the Old Testament.
Lebanon also gave rise to the great civilisation of the Phoenicia which colonised so much of the Mediterranean and gave the world the first taste of a modern alphabet. The Persians then claimed it, as did Alexander the Great and the Romans. The Christian era came next, and then gave way to the Islamic era, but not before a two hundred year return to European Christendom during the era of the Crusades. As you can see, the country is literally built on a maze of precious archaeological ruins!
Today: Because of the horrific genocide and ethnic cleansing of Christians from many parts of the Middle East during the late colonial era and early 20th Century, the French government decided to set up a special enclave as a refuge for refugee Christians from right across the Fertile Crescent. Thus modern Lebanon was eventually born in 1948 as the only majority Christian country in the Middle East. It is also the only country with freedom of religion and the only democratic country outside Israel. The country flourished for a while but the good times all came to a shuddering halt when millions of Palestinian refugees entered the country fleeing Jewish persecution (15% of whom were Christians). This led to a 15 year civil war that only ended in 1990. Lebanon has since boomed again but the peace is fragile and the economy not strong.
The country is 87% urban. It has 6 million citizens and 2 million refugees. It is 40% traditional Christian, 27% Sunni Muslim, 27% Shia Muslim and 5% Druze. It is the world’s third most indebted nation and the majority of its poor are Palestinian Muslims because of their lower education levels and refugee backgrounds.
True Christianity: Jesus was actually the first to bring the gospel to Lebanon when he visited Tyre and healed the Phoenician woman’s demon possessed child (Mark 7:24-31)! From there we know Peter and Paul repeated the Good News in later decades. The church grew quickly along the coast but the many mountainous villages were much slower in accepting the Gospel. In fact to this day the Druze of this same region even refuse to accept Islam.
The church eventually settled into a culture of tradition and ritual, abandoning the very life-changing message that gave birth to it in the first place. Today Christianity in Lebanon is 50% Maronite Catholic, 20% Greek Orthodox, 12% Greek Melkite Catholic and 5% Armenian Orthodox. Get the picture! Only some 25,000 or about 0.4% of the population is evangelical. These numbers are growing, but are so tiny as to not have any impact on the vast majority of nominal Christians, let alone the Muslim majority. Sadly, evangelicals are even viewed with great suspicion by these older Christian churches.
The great re-awakening of the Lebanese church is yet to happen, but there are sparks of life in this picture from the few who dare to truly follow Jesus, and there is at least one western-style mega-church in Beirut. Another area of some growth is within the newly arrived Syrian refugees who are open to True Christianity after suffering great trauma caused by Islamic extremists. YWAM is active in the country and there is Christian TV available to many.
Because of its uniquely tolerant religious social climate, Lebanon is also the base for much evangelical Christian leadership training for churches throughout the Middle East. There are also a number of evangelical Christian schools educating many of the future elite of the country.
28. THE CHURCH IN LIBYA: SUFFERING TERRIBLE PAIN AND HARDSHIP
History: Libya has been occupied by humans since the dawn of history. During the ice ages after the great flood it was a lush and fertile area with a growing population. From its original population emerged the Berber people group. Sadly it is now 90% desert and most people now hug the Mediterranean coast to the north.
The recorded history of Libya comprises six distinct periods: Ancient Berber Libya, the Greek and Roman eras, the Islamic era, Ottoman rule, Italian rule, and the Modern era. First to join the Berbers were the Phoenicians from Lebanon. The famous city of Carthage was their headquarters. The empire that grew out of Carthage was a major thorn in the side of the expanding Roman Empire across the waters to the north. At the time of Jesus many Berbers traded with Israel and it was a Berber, Simon of Cyrene, who carried Christ’s cross to Gethsemane (Mark 15:21). In 698 AD Libya fell to the Arabs and thus began the still ongoing subjugation of the Berber people, language, culture and their Christian religion.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its North African possessions during World War 1, Libya fell into the hands of the Italians. Half the Bedouin population was killed in the severe suppression that characterised Italian rule. Libya finally became an independent state in 1952 but only 15 years later it fell into the hands of a military dictator, Muammar Gaddafi who destroyed much of the culture and social cohesion.
Today: Gaddafi’s death during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, and the power vacuum that followed, has led to large scale disintegration of the country and a religiously motivated civil war. The booty of this war being control of Libya’s vast oil reserves. Only now is there a strong enough faction emerging to pull the country together again.
Libya today is a country of some 8 million people and is the main jumping off point for illegal immigrants from Africa wanting a better life in Europe. Perhaps 2 million more people are stuck in Libya on their way to Europe. Its infrastructure and economy is shattered and the little wealth that does come in from oil, which is 90% of all exports, doesn’t find its way to the common people.
True Christianity: In addition to Simon of Cyrene we hear of Libyans present at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10). In the next few centuries the church flourished among the peoples of modern day Libya. Tertullian, the great theologian, was a Libyan Berber. It took many hundreds of years for Arabisation and Islam to destroy this vibrant church culture, but by the European colonial era the process was largely complete. Only a hundred thousand Catholic and Orthodox believers remain from that original church.
In the modern era the true church of Jesus Christ has been reborn in Libya thanks to Protestant missions in the first half of the 20th Century. At the end of the Gaddafi era there was some level of freedom and local believers began to grow in number. However, the anarchy that followed the ouster of Gaddafi plunged the country into chaos and Christians became targets for brutality and persecution. Any new converts to Christianity face abuse and violence for their decision to follow Christ. The many Christian migrants from southern Africa in Libya have been attacked, sexually assaulted, detained for slavery and even executed. Open Doors estimates 7,500 Christians were executed in 2015 alone! The only visible Christians in Libya today are western expatriate foreign workers in the large oil industry. The local church has had to go completely underground. It is one of the worst places in the world to be a local Christian.
The traditional church is now gone, perhaps forever. However I believe ISIS and other radical Islamic groups are actually sowing the seeds of a new church. Their repugnant brutality has brought millions of former Muslims to Christ across the Middle East. In Libya it will be no different. As we pray the Holy Spirit will be working through dreams, visions, visitations, miracles and the like. Many Saul’s will become Pauls in the decades ahead as the ordinary people reject doctrines of violence and the religion that justifies them. Just as the true church in Cambodia disappeared under Pol Pot and is now booming, the same will happen in Libya.
29. THE CHURCH IN MALAYSIA: ETHNICALLY ISOLATED AND SUFFERING
History: Malaysia is located on the strategic Asian-Europe sea-lane that exposes it to a huge amount of global trade and foreign culture. The full Malay people group, comprising modern Indonesians, Philippinos, Singaporeans and Malaysians are the world’s greatest seafarers, both historically and still today, making up 1/3rd of all shipping crews. An early western account of the area known today as Malaysia was in Ptolemy’s book Geographia. Indian influence was great, with Hinduism and Buddhism dominating early Malay history and these religions reached their peak with the regionally dominant Srivijaya civilisation from the 7th to the 13th centuries.
Muslims traders had passed through the Malay Peninsula as early as the 10th century, but it was not until the 14th century that Islam first firmly established itself and eventually took over from the older religions. Islam has had a profound influence on the Malay people to this day. The Portuguese were the first European colonial powers to establish themselves on the Malay Peninsula and Southeast Asia, capturing Malacca in 1511. They were followed by the Dutch in 1641. However, it was the British who ultimately secured their hegemony across the territory that is now Malaysia, leaving the southern Islands to the Dutch. This is how Malaysia and Indonesia became separate countries. With the British came a vast number of Chinese and Indian workers who now make up 40% of modern Malaysia.
The Japanese invasion during World War II ended British domination in Malaysia. It unleashed a wave of nationalism which resulted in the declaration of independence on 31 August 1957. Eight years later Singapore was granted full independence from Malaysia.
Today: As you can now see “Malaysia” is a modern concept, created in the last two centuries but especially in the second half of the 20th Century. Its people are likewise not rooted in history as 40% are foreign in ethnicity. This eventually led to terrible Race riots directed toward the Chinese in 1969 and the imposition of emergency rule to re-establish Malay control of the country. This curtailment of political freedoms and civil liberties has never been fully reversed and is the foundational doctrine of al modern Malaysian politics. The Malay people have created a two tiered culture with themselves and Islam at the top, and all other ethnicities and other religions at the bottom. Political and economic Corruption and religious intolerance have therefore become hallmarks of modern Malaysia, and this greatly limits its economic development compared to Singapore next door. Even so, Malaysia the industrious Malay people have created the world’s most successful non-oil based Muslim economy.
The government greatly fears the Chinese and Christianity so all Malays are considered Muslim by definition and are legally off limits for evangelism. Over 100 radical Islamist groups agitate for more power and Sharia laws in political life. Malaysia is a hotbed of ferment.
True Christianity: Though treated with contempt by the government, Christianity plays a significant part in Malaysia’s cultural life, even though Christians regularly face social discrimination, regular legal injustices and growing discrimination. Amongst many restrictions: No church can be built within 5km of a mosque and over 30 words previously used in the Malay Bible are now off limits. 10% of the country identifies as Christian, with almost half of these being evangelical believers with a growth rate of 3% a year. Unity among believers is high compared to many other countries, although a ghetto mentality has set in among more traditional churches which are aging rapidly.
Most recent evangelical growth has occurred in the Chinese, Indian and tribal peoples. Mainland Malaysia, where most people live, is only 3% Christian but the Christian faith is growing in all non-Muslim groups there, especially among the urban middle class English speaking Chinese. Sadly, this creates an even greater cultural gap between Christianity and indigenous Malay culture.
The only way Malay believers, of whom there are a few tens of thousands, can meet is in underground house churches completely cut off from the visible church. A Malay who converts loses everything and becomes a refugee in their own country, often sent to a prison for “re-education”. This makes the Malays are one of the world’s largest unreached groups.
30. THE CHURCH IN THE MALDIVES: IN SERIOUS NEED OF OUR PRAYERS!
History: The Maldives lie about 1,000 kilometres south west of the tip of India and consist of 1,200 small coral islands. The islands were first inhabited by the Dravidian peoples of the South Indian state of Kerala and the Maldives culture still contains many links to these people. The earliest written records mentioning the Maldives islands date to 500 BC. For the next 1,400 years the islands were under Buddhist influence and it is this culture that survives today despite the dominance of Islam. The Maldivian language, the first Maldivian scripts, the architecture, the ruling institutions, the customs and manners of the Maldivians originated during the Buddhist period of its history.
Through the increasing cultural exposure to Muslim sea traders, the king of the Maldives converted to Islam in 1153, ushering in its current religion. His dynasty lasted until 1932. In 1558 the Maldives became a branch of the Portugese trading post of Goa in India. Their attempts to convert the locals to the Catholic religion resulted in their departure 15 years later. The Dutch came next, followed by the British in 1796, neither of these two colonists made the same mistake as the Portugese in trying to convert the locals.
Agitation for self-rule gradually gained momentum in the 20th Century resulting independence in 1965. With 360,000 citizens and 80,000 foreign workers, the Maldives is one of the most densely populated island chains in the world. Its capital, Male, is a most unusual sight indeed.
Today: At an average elevation of only 1.5 metres above sea level, the Maldives is in great danger from the ocean. The Tsunami of 2004 inundated nearly all its islands, devastating its agricultural base and fragile ecosystem. The global downturn in 2009 then shattered its lucrative tourism industry. It is a poor country at the mercy of nature and global economics.
Since independence the country politics drifted quickly back toward the autocratic rule of the old Sultanate. From 1978 to 2008 it was under the iron fist of a local dictator. Pressure to open up its political sphere resulted in free elections in 2008. However, within five years political autocracy was reasserting its ugly head and the government has been unstable ever since. Freedom is viewed as a threat and un-Islamic to many of the countries elite.
Behind its beautiful tourist image of an island paradise is a dark reality. Sunni Islam is the only recognised religion and is the enforced centre of all cultural expression. No other religion or ideology is allowed to exist. Freedom of expression is thus severely restricted, divorce rates are among the highest in the world, crime is rampant, as is the abuse of children and endemic drug use among teenagers.
The people of the Maldives are crying out for a better life but are being deliberately held back from the one Truth that can set them free. Part of the reason for this is that the Maldives version of Sunni Islam is deeply rooted in occult practices called Fanditha that pre-date Islam’s arrival. Its Voodoo and black magic are pervasive all the way to the highest political circles. This is an island controlled by Satan in a way not often seen in the modern world.
True Christianity: The people of the Maldives are therefore some of the least evangelised on earth. Freedom of religion is highly unpopular and violent opposition to any conversions is to be expected. To make matters worse, in recent years Islam has shifted sharply toward arrogant and restrictive Saudi Wahhabism. No missions work or Christian missions are allowed and the government denies the existence of any Christians, while simultaneously arresting any they find! Because the Maldives view of Christianity is shaped by the immorality of tourists and western media, Christians are seen as both enemies of Islam and the state. In fact the term Christian is used locally as a swear word to abuse each other!
Anyone who becomes a true follower of Jesus can expect mockery, ostracism, arrest and torture. Consequently there are less than 500 believers in the whole country. Numbers are rising, but from such a small base that a major spiritual breakthrough is desperately needed. There is no Bible in the native language and the internet is the only means of witnessing locally, once past the governments internet firewall!
31. THE CHURCH IN MALI: GOING NOWHERE. NEEDS A LOT OF HELP!
History: Mali takes its name from the medieval kingdom of the same name that straddled the Sahara Desert and the Sahel grasslands to its south, and acted as a conduit for trade between the north and the south. The famous city of Timbuktu is synonymous with this region and era. Not much is known of the era before this time although one ancient writer describes the king of Mali converting to Islam sometime in the 11th Century. Sometime around the 14th Century a significant minority of the population adopted Islam and Timbuktu became the southern outpost of Islam and a major source of slaves taken from the black Africans further south. About this time the great Mali kingdom began to grow in influence, aided by the fact that the mighty Niger River penetrates north into the Sahara before turning south east.
The Mali kingdom declined around the 17th Century and from then until French occupation in the 1892 Mali was ruled by a succession of short-lived kings. Mali was ruled as a section of the French West African Federation. As with other French colonies, economic and social development was never encouraged as France was more interested in exploitation and suppression. No Protestant ministries were allowed in this era and sadly, it was during this time that the major Islamisation of the country took place. The spiritual story of Mali and all other Sahel countries would now be so different if evangelical ministry was allowed to take root a 100 years ago.
Today: Mali finally won its independence in 1960 and for a few years the new country included modern day Senegal. Its current boundaries are ethnically artificial so it includes many different people groups in near equal numbers, except for the 30% Melinke-Bambara peoples. Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth and has many depressing statistics that back-up that unfortunate distinction. Perhaps the worst two are life expectancy at just 48 years, and literacy at 20%. Drought, locusts and desertification are all considered normal in Mali. Drug lords use the unpatrolled desert to ship South American drugs to Europe and there is always a break away Islamic militia somewhere on the northern horizon.
True Christianity: In the midst of all this there is a remarkable democracy and freedom of religion present in the country, a rare commodity in this part of the world. Mali is 87% Muslim but it is a tolerant form of the religion as it is not deeply engrained in the culture. It is still 10% Animist and many Animist practices are still prevalent in the Muslim majority. Occult and voodoo practices are rife in Mali.
Just 2.5% of the country is Christian of which Catholics make up 4/5ths of that figure. There are only 100,000 Protestant Christians out of 16 million people but most Protestants are evangelical believers. This true church grew rapidly between independence in 1960 and 1990 but has since stopped growing and has even shrunk as a % of the population. This is very unusual for an African country of any type and the cause is simply rapid population growth exceeding meagre church growth. Second generation Christianity is proving to be a shallow witness to the surrounding culture (as it is in most Western countries!). Even though the country is spiritually receptive, many who do make decisions for Jesus are poorly discipled and go back to previous practices.
Mali is still very much a mission field and there is some missions work going on, but not nearly enough. A culturally sensitive Muslim-focused church planting movement is desperately needed.
32. THE CHURCH IN MAURITANIA: ALMOST NON-EXISTENT!
History: The history of Mauritania, what little there is since its people were mostly desert nomads until the 1970’s, is bound up in three distinct ethnic groups. There are the sub-Saharan black Africans who have always inhabited the extreme south hugging the Senegal River. Then there are the Berber/Arab people who were in control of the northern regions since the beginnings of the Arab Empire in the 10th Century. They are called the White Moors. Mauritania even takes its name from an ancient Berber kingdom. Then there are the Black Moors who are in part the descendants of the slaves of the White Moors. The nation is split evenly between these three ethnic groups, with the last two always vying with each other for power. Arabic is now the official language.
Islam came to the region a thousand years ago via the slave trade and the wider Islamisation of the Sahara desert regions. It is now deeply entrenched at all levels of society but as is common in Africa, under the surface of Islam there is widespread involvement in witchcraft and black magic. Satan has an iron grip on the people of Mauritania.
Today: Independent from France in 1960, Mauritania now has 4 million people but was still 70% nomadic as late as 1970. It is statistically depressing: It is one of the world’s poorest countries. It has a life expectancy of just 51 years. Over 40% of the population is under 15 years of age and fewer than half can read, especially women. One third of children face chronic malnutrition and the desert grows harsher every year. Most people still make their living from subsistence herding in its vast deserts while only 1% of the country is arable, this being the thin northern floodplain of the Senegal river. Mauritania is a place that both time and the outside world have forgotten about.
Being 99.75% Muslim, it has suffered more than its fair share of political violence and military coups. Islamic tradition is responsible for the still functioning slave trade in the interior and Sharia law is widely followed. Sadly, Mauritania is a also key transition point for African refugees seeking a better life in Europe and South American drugs heading the same way.
True Christianity: There is virtually none. Mauritania has never known the Good News in any way shape or form. The only Christian presence is in the far south among the Sub-Saharan black Africans. There are barely 2,000 evangelicals and 4,000 Catholics among some 4 million people and expatriate Christians are few on the ground following violence toward some of their numbers a decade ago. Local believers have been known to be beaten, imprisoned and endured social ostracism. There is tremendous social and family pressure to conform to Islam, which the national religion of the state and it is unlawful to publish any material that is deemed to be critical of Islam. Few locals travel abroad so opportunity to reach even those few is limited. Compounding the issue for evangelism is the continuing nomadic nature of some 20% of the population.
Having read these depressing statistics it is encouraging to note that most evangelicals are now Spirit-Filled and their numbers are growing at around 6%, or a few hundred, a year. A minority of evangelical Christians are Muslim-background believers who meet in secret underground church groups. We will never know their true numbers. These believers are the key to the future growth of Christianity in Mauritania but they remain well hidden due to increasing Islamic radicalisation. There is some work among Mauritanians living south of the border in Senegal.
33. THE CHURCH IN MAYOTTE: VIRTUALLY NON-EXISTANT
History: Mayotte consists of two small islands located half way between Madagascar and Africa, and is part of the Comoros chain of volcanic mountain tops jutting out from the Mozambique Channel. The area was known to Arab and Iranian traders who brought their religion to the islands, and its name is a French corruption of the Arabic Jazīrat al-Mawt meaning islands of death. Mayotte’s people are 90% indigenous to the island or the Comoros islands and their ancestors were likely people from the African Swahili and Bantu cultures who came over from as early as 1000 BC.
Shiragi Arabs from Persia first arrived in AD 933, bringing Sunni Islam with them. From the 8th to the 13th centuries they were followed by an influx of Austronesian sailors from Southeast Asia, who had earlier settled nearby Madagascar. Thus, like Comoros next door, Mayotte can lay claim to being the first site of the complete mixing of the African, Arabian and Asian people groups.
In 1843 France took control of all the islands of all the region and on July 6, 1975 the Comorian parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence. The representatives of the island of Mayotte abstained and in two subsequent referendums the population of Mayotte voted decisively against independence from France. Mayotte thus remains under French administration and is 9 times richer than the other Comoros islands due to French financial subsidies.
Today: Although far richer than its neighbours in Comoros, Mayotte is by far the poorest protectorate in the world belonging to France. It is home to a French military base and widespread welfare subsidies have dramatically reduced any incentive to be self-sufficient. Thus agriculture is collapsing and the population lives off expensive imported foods. All the while the population grows through natural means and large scale illegal immigration from Comoros. Many times the United Nations has condemned France’s continued occupation of the islands, and has repeatedly recognised Comoros’ legal claim to sovereignity, but to no avail. This is at odds with 99% of the population who wish to remain part of France.
Two hundred and eighty thousand Mayotteans live on just 373 square km of land. Literacy is somewhere between 30 and 50%. Because money is relatively easy and life relaxed, a spirit of complacency rests on most of the population. If nothing changes in Mayotte there will be an eventual disaster and major policy shift from France as lazy wealth continues to attract a never-ending stream of illegal immigrants from Comoros to these two tiny islands.
True Christianity: Around 97% of the population is Sunni Muslim, but folk Islam and witchcraft are widespread. Many people are involved in cults practicing spirit possession. Approximately 26% of the adult population, mostly men, report regularly entering trance states in which they believe they are possessed by certain demonic spirits. Islands of death is definitely an apt description of the spiritual state of Mayotte.
There are only around 250 known evangelicals on the islands as part of a wider community of 3,200 nominal Christians, mainly Catholic. There are just three evangelical congregations on the islands, and they do not yet have a fired-up vision for reaching their fellow citizens. Because Mayotte is French, evangelism is legal and never challenged, but is not common due to widespread social pressure. Evangelical Christianity needs to find a way to get inside the indigenous culture. The most response to the Gospel comes from the illegal immigrants from Comoros where they have never heard anything to do with Christianity.
34. THE CHURCH IN MOROCCO: NOW WAKING UP: PRAYER NEEDED!
History: Morocco is situated in the north west corner of Africa. It has fertile land in the north, the Atlas mountains in the centre and the Sahara desert to the south. The recorded history of Morocco begins with the Phoenician colonization of the Moroccan coast between the 8th and 6th centuries BC, although the area was inhabited by indigenous Berbers for some two thousand years before that.
In the 5th century BC, Carthage extended its rule westward over the coastal areas of Morocco, while the hinterland was ruled by indigenous kings. These kings re-took control a few centuries later and ruled until 40 CE, when Morocco was annexed by the Roman Empire.
The region was then conquered by the Arab Muslims in the early 8th century and was the launching point for the Muslim assault on Western Europe in 711AD. Berber-dominated Morocco broke away from the Arab-centric Umayyad Caliphate after the Berber Revolt of 740AD. Under self-rule, Morocco has dominated north-west Africa for the last 1,300 years, and also Muslim Spain for the first 500 years of that period.
In 1912, European powers took control and divided Morocco into French and Spanish protectorates. Moroccans agitation for independence grew stronger from the 1940’s onwards and the Moroccans were granted independence from France in 1956 on the condition that they become a constitutional monarchy. In 1975 it occupied land in the western Sahara claimed by Spain and has maintained control of this disputed territory since then. Sadly, Morocco is now a majority Arab country, with the native Berbers now constituting only 41% of the population. The official language is Arabic, but Berber is still widely spoken in many homes.
Today: Compared to many other Muslim nations Morocco has enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence since independence due to a limited form of democracy. However, it is increasingly authoritarian in the face of a rising Islamist threat. Literacy is low, officially around 50%, but functionally much lower. The economy survives on tourism, fertilizer mining, textiles and agriculture, with incomes being some 6% of the USA. This figure hides the sad fact that there is a great gap between the rich few and the masses of poor. Unemployment is very high so many youth seek employment in Europe. Such massive income disparity provides fuel for the Islamists.
Sunni Islam is the state religion, officially claiming 99.88% of the population, but the existence of now vastly shrunken historic Christian and Jewish communities is tolerated. Islam’s drift toward fundamentalism among the poor and the opposing force of materialistic secularisation from neighbouring Europe are tearing at the fabric of religious unity in modern Morocco.
True Christianity: Christianity is much older than Islam in Morocco. It was the religion of opposition to the tyranny of Rome among the Berbers. Even in modern times Morocco was still home to a large minority Christian community. Casablanca was almost 50% European during the time of the French Protectorate. However, most Europeans and Christians from the ancient denominations have migrated to the Western world since independence. In modern Morocco it is legal to talk about Christianity and to invite discussion, but all known Christian activity is closely monitored by the government. During the Arab Spring in 2011 a large number of expatriate Christians were deported and their institutions closed. Local believers are regularly harassed by police and have been known to be imprisoned for their faith. The state-run media plays its part in stirring up opposition to any form of Christianity. Their motivation comes partially from the French and Spanish Catholic push to convert Muslims during the colonial era.
The Voice of the Martyrs reports there is a growing number of native Moroccans (45,000) converting to Christianity, especially Berber people in the rural areas. Many of the converts are baptized secretly in Morocco’s old churches. Some local believers deliver podcasts via internet radio stations and youtube, and then distribute Bibles to interested listeners. House churches dominate indigenous expressions of faith so it is unknown just how many Moroccan believers there are or how fast the church is growing. Arrests are common, suggesting that the underground church is growing significantly. Agadir and Marrakech, in particular, are known to have significant Christian populations. Intriguingly, recent statements from the government suggest a change is in the air and tolerance of Christianity is finally coming to pass.
35. THE CHURCH IN NIGER: ONLY ONE IN A THOUSAND KNOWS JESUS!
History: The Republic of Niger takes its name from the Niger River that flows close to its south-western boundary. Niger is a large land-locked country in the centre of the Sahara Desert in north Africa. Large numbers of people once lived here after Noah’s Flood when the Sahara was much wetter than it is today. In recorded history it’s infrequent waterholes provided stopover points in the north-south trade between Berber and Arab peoples to the north and the African Negroid peoples to the south of the desert for thousands of years. This trade eventually brought Islam to regions south of the Sahara.
In the 7th century, Songhai tribes settled down north of modern-day Niamey, which is now the capital of Niger and from then until the 17th Century the southern parts of Niger were dominated by the powerful Songhai Empire. The Songhai Empire prospered greatly and managed to maintain peace with its neighbouring empires including the Mali Empire. From the middle of the 15th to the late 16th Century, Songhai was one of the largest Islamic empires in history. In time it gave way to the Hausa kingdom and they remains the largest ethnic group in Niger today.
Various kingdoms came and went after these glory years until the French took control around 1900 as part of its West African possessions. French rule was brutal and interest in human development was minimal in comparison to British rules parts of Africa. It was during this era that Niger went from being half Muslim and half Animist to becoming almost all Muslim. True Christianity was not allowed to take root during this time due to French political policy. This, by the way, is why all former French West African colonies lag the rest of Africa so badly in Christian numbers today. It was an historic opportunity lost that Islam filled.
Today: Independence for Niger came in stages between 1958 and 1960, and the new country was a stitching together several diverse ethnic groups into one country based on French notions of geographical boundaries. Because of this, the first two decades of the new country inevitably saw several military coups come and go, but the last ten years has seen a stable democracy take root.
The country is arguably the world’s poorest with 40% of the national budget needing to be propped up via foreign aid. Literacy is a mere 30% and that figure includes a majority of males over females. Life expectancy is just 50 years and most people are subsistence herdsmen or farmers in the Savannah of the extreme south where rainfall is higher. Frequent droughts and creeping desertification play havoc with most people’s lives on a regular basis. Famine is a regular visitor to most people. Outside the capital, Niger basically still lives in medieval times.
True Christianity: Thankfully Niger is a non-sectarian Muslim state with relative freedom of religion at the government level. Socially, however, it is very hard for Muslim people to convert to Christianity as they will face ostracism from the key social unit, their family. Adding a layer of complexity to traditional Christian outreach via mercy ministries is the deeply-rooted occult/voodoo superstition and demonic possession that sits below the official adherence to Islam.
The number of true believers in the country is miniscule, at just 0.1% or some 23,000. Most of these are in urban areas that have been exposed to foreign missionary work. Growth is just keeping up with the rapid population growth, which is one of the highest rates in the world. Most believers are in small clusters, they feel isolated, and many are illiterate. Many who do convert then turn back to Islam due to pressure. Even though the church is small, this has not stopped several splits already forming. To compound matters, militant Islamists such as Boko Haram are now killing and driving out known Christians from certain areas of the country that border Nigeria and Chad.
A ray of hope comes from an increasing missions vision for Niger from the large and influential Nigerian church to the south (50 million believers and counting!). They are being aided by missionaries from Brazil.
36. THE CHURCH IN NIGERIA: HUGE BUT WILL IT REACH ITS MUSLIMS?
Why Nigeria?: Although Nigeria is not technically a majority Muslim country, it has 200 million people, over 80 million being Muslims, I have therefore decided to include it in our prayer list.
History: Nigeria is an amalgam of three major ethnic groups straddled together by British colonialism. Recorded history began in this region as long ago as 1500BC as trade kingdoms flourished on the north-south and east-west African trade routes. Islam arrived in the north around 1000AD via trade between the Kenam Empire and Egypt.
With the outlawing of the slave trade in 1807 Britain stationed soldiers in the region to stop local slave traders. This led to interference within the region to stop slave-trade friendly local kings and chiefs.
By 1885 Britain was in control of most of Nigeria, and with the British came large numbers of Protestant missionaries. For all its faults, without this colonial Christian influence Nigeria would be another vastly Muslim country similar to all the former French colonies in this region of Africa.
Independence came in 1960. Corruption led to coups, counter coups and a civil war between the three major ethnic groups in 1967. Eventually true democracy emerged at the end of the first decade of this century.
Today: Nigeria is the giant of Africa with over 200 million citizens, making it the seventh most populated country in the world. One in six Africans is a Nigerian (by the way, half of all the world’s children now Africans!!!!!). Staggeringly, the population of Nigeria is projected to reach 400 million by 2050 and Lagos will be on its way to becoming the largest city in the world. This country, and this continent, will matter to the whole world in the near future!
Unfortunately Nigeria relies on oil for 90% of its foreign exchange, and most of this wealth is squandered in cesspool of rampant corruption. The country is therefore poor, but not absolutely poor like its neighbour to the north, Niger. The Christian south of Nigeria is wealthy compared to the Muslim north, with its depressing love of feudal/sharia Muslim political systems. Life expectancy is around 50 years but literacy is relatively high at over 70%, mores so in the developed south.
Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups are split along religious lines. The northern Hausa and Fulani are 95% Muslim and 5% Christian. The western Yoruba are 55% Muslim, 35% Christian and 10% Animist. The south-eastern Igbos people are 98% Christian. The middle of Nigeria is where the two religions mix uneasily.
Needless to say there is religious and ethnic friction. The Fulani Muslims in the north are losing their pasturelands to desertification. They in turn prey on Christina farmers further south. Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled still further south and flood the already overcrowded cities. The Muslim/Christian conflict threatens to eventually split the country both geographically and spiritually. Compounding the climate crisis is the resurgence of Militant Islam with Boko Haram being its poster child because of its ongoing violence.
True Christianity: The 1963 census indicated that 47% of the 50 million Nigerians were Muslim, 35% were Christian, and 18% members of local Animist religions. Today the picture is very different. Most surveys now suggest Christianity constitutes just over half the population and Islam 45%. Both have grown at the cost of traditional indigenous religions. Christianity has made little inroad into Islamic areas because of its Westernised structures and teachings. Some 31% of the entire population of Nigeria, over 50 million people, are now evangelical, and almost all of these were charismatic or Pentecostal. This makes Nigeria one of the most powerfully Christian countries in the world while simultaneously having one of the highest number of Muslims. It’s a paradox!
Like America but more so, Pentecostal mega churches in Nigeria now own whole suburbs and cities, banks, entertainment precincts and even infrastructure such as water and power. Their tax-free status has led to much corruption and it will probably lead to their demise in the future. This blatant Westernisation and commercialisation makes it almost impossible for these churches to reach out to the Muslim community.
Nigeria still awaits the rise of Christians who can decisively penetrate the spiritual darkness that pervades its Muslim countrymen. That is why I have included Nigeria in this series of newsletters.
37. THE CHURCH IN OMAN: BOTH VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE
History: The Sultanate of Oman occupies the eastern horn of the Arabian Peninsula to the east of Saudi Arabia. Its location close to the cradle of civilization speaks of a deep history. Its mountains were once a source of frankincense and its proximity to India led to much exchange with South Asia and China. Being crucial to east-west trade, it was part of several empires before the Persians took control and used it as a buffer against Rome-India trade and associated naval ambitions. One of many conquerors, Alexander the Great sent ships here to examine the region. Arabs migrated to the region in large numbers during the Persian era.
Christianity came here early and took root in Oman a few centuries after Christ. Christianity arrived in the gulf from a number of directions: from Christian tribes in the Arabian Desert; from Ethiopian Christians to the south; and from Persia and Iraq, where Christian communities flourished under Persian rule. Christianity and Judaism were adopted by many Arabs. However, Christianity dwindled after Islam arrived. This was sadly due to the highly religious nature of Christianity by this time. Vibrant New Testament faith was no longer the norm in the centuries just before Islam emerged. How different would the history of the Middle East be if the reverse was the case!
The Portuguese came in 1508 and in the centuries after the arrival of the Europeans Oman grew in stature as an ally in their global trade ambitions. Oman’s political power peaked in the 1850’s when it occupied a vast coastal strip of Arabia and Africa, but much of its wealth was built on the back of the African slave trade. In fact Oman only banned slavery in 1970! From the 1850’s onwards colonial powers, especially Britain, wrestled control over Oman’s external affairs. In 1951 Britain recognised Oman as a separate sovereign state.
Today: Oman is an absolute monarchy, even though there is an assembly and some voting rights. After deposing his father in 1970, Sultan Qaboos opened up the country, embarked on economic reforms, and followed a policy of modernisation marked by increased spending on health, education and welfare. Despite some liberalisation of the political landscape, the Sultan still faces much opposition from the people he rules. Interestingly, radical Islamists are routinely incarcerated but many personal freedoms for foreigners are tolerated.
A significant factor to Oman’s regional and political separation from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates is its official belief which is a form of Islam distinct from the Sunni and Shi’a branches. The Ibadi movement has several teachings and practices that differ from those two larger sects of Islam. Probably the main religious difference however, is the Ibadis’ self-imposed disassociation from non-believers, which makes Christian evangelism all the more difficult.
Economically, Oman is a reasonably wealthy country, with an income 50% of the USA. Most of this wealth comes from oil related exports. There is a large expatriate community present to run this industry and many others. Native Omani’s constitute slightly less than half the population, with other Arabs, Iranians and South Asians making up the numbers. Muslims therefore only make up 88% of the population, with Sikhs at 6%, Hindus at 4%, Christians at 3% and Buddhism at 4%. Expatriates are allowed to worship freely but not to convert Muslims.
True Christianity: Modern true Christianity is believed to have first entered Oman in 1889–1890 with the arrival of James Cantine and Samuel Zwemer who opened hospitals in this backward part of the world. With the arrival of large number of expatriate workers from Europe when oil was discovered and from South Asia later on, the church in Oman was planted and is now growing strongly. The Catholic Church is the dominant Christian presence, but is actually now outnumbered by the different evangelical groups. These smaller churches are doing a fantastic job at winning their fellow expatriate workers and the true church is growing at around 6% a year. This robust growth aligns with church growth currently occurring in both India and Pakistan, home of many of the expats.
Reaching the Muslim community is another story altogether. Evangelism is banned and sadly I could find little information on Muslim background believers in Oman. The number of Christians from a Muslim background is believed to be tiny but growing despite fierce persecution and pressure from both government and their community. Omani society shuns those who leave Islam, and those who convert from a Muslim background risk legal discrimination, as well as losing family, house and job. So at this stage nobody really knows if MBB believers are expanding the Kingdom or holding on in isolation. This alone makes Oman a reason for concerted prayer.
38: THE CHURCH IN PAKISTAN: PRIMED FOR GROWTH
History: Situated to the west of India, Pakistan is 12 times smaller than the USA but with roughly two thirds the population. It is bordered by the Himalayan mountains to the north becoming desert to the south on both sides of the massive Indus River irrigation region and delta, the largest in the world. The geography of the Indus River is the heart of the nation. It feeds most of the people. It enabled its ancient and modern societies to flourish. It drives its economy and divides the civilisations of the Middle East from the Indian subcontinent. Pakistan’s great cities hug the Indus or its tributaries and 60% of its people farm the bounty of it in a myriad of villages. The soul of Pakistan is found in these villages. Without the Indus River Pakistan would not exist as we know it. This great river explains why Pakistan’s everyday culture comes from India but its religion comes from the Middle East, why its spoken language is an offshoot of Hindi while the script of that language comes from Arabic.
The Indus Valley thus formed a natural barrier between civilisations. Because if this unique combination of western hostile desert and eastern bountiful water, it was always going to be the eastern or western borderland of two great religious, political and cultural domains. The valley was for thousands of years deeply influenced to the west by Persia and its deep culture and religious practices. To the east it was deeply influenced by the ancient Hindu culture of the Indian subcontinent and its religious practices, which originally came from Persia but developed into a separate culture and religion. For most of that time the greater influence was India and its religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. Hinduism therefore has very deep roots in Pakistan. Buddhism likewise came from the North Indian plains of the Ganges River region as a protest movement against Hinduism. It quickly travelled up through Pakistan and Afghanistan into Central Asia and then into South East Asia where it still exists. Hinduism, with its austere practices and caste discrimination almost died on the subcontinent, out but it eventually won back the people through a process of becoming a festival religion. Thus the Indus Valley was, until the coming of the Arabs, largely Hindu or Jain.
In the late 7th and early 8th Centuries several Arab invasions reached the Indus River delta near modern day Karachi. However it wasn’t until the 11th Century that Muslim armies successfully came down from Afghanistan and began to conquer the upper reaches of the Indus Valley and the bountiful Punjab. By 1192AD the Muslims had conquered all of greater north India and ruled the sub-continent in the name of Islam until the coming of the British 300 years later.
It was from this time that much of the culture of the Indus Valley slowly began to come under the sway of the Islamic religion and its culture. Intriguingly, the Hindu heartlands further east solidly resisted Islamisation except for the Bengalis around the Ganges River delta in what is now modern day Bangladesh. This is why Bangladesh and Pakistan are Muslim and between them Hindu India still exists as a separate political entity today.
In the 15th Century Guru Nanak, who came from a village just outside Lahore, founded the Sikh religion. These are the guys who wear the distinctive turbans. Sikhism combines elements of Islam and Hinduism into belief in a single god but with multiple cycles of life. Significantly, Guru Nanak believed there was indeed a single creator, but rejected the harsh Islamic version of that god after visiting Arabia. Lahore and the Punjab were the traditional heartland of Sikhism and the home to the Sikh Empire that ruled the Punjab and Kashmir in the 18th and 19th Centuries.
By the 20th Century the area we now know as Pakistan was majority Muslim but the Punjab and Kashmir were still ruled by the powerful Sikh’s. With the partition of India in 1948 there was a terrible forced migration of Sikhs fleeing to India and millions of Muslims fleeing to Pakistan. Thus Sikhs today are the demographic majority in Indian Punjab, but almost invisible in Pakistani Punjab. Because of the great animosity between Sikh’s and Muslims, many Sikh’s converted to become nominal Christians at the time of Partition in order to stay in Pakistan.
Today: Even though its culture is old, what we know today as Pakistan is only 70 years old and was born during the breakup of India in 1948. The reason for this partition was purely religious. By 1948 the 33 million people of the Indus Valley were 80% Muslim in faith and the leaders of this Muslim political faction kept pushing the British for their own distinct homeland. The province of Punjab was eventually split down the middle between the two countries amidst terrible violence which saw up to 10 million people forced to migrate into Pakistan or back over into India and millions killed.
Pakistan thus began political life as an almost purely Islamic country while proclaiming it was a country for all religions. Islamic domination of the new country was completed in the 1980’s when the president deliberately began implementing aspects of Sharia Law that discriminated against minority religions, encouraged the establishment of religious Madrassa schools, and endorsed the actions of radical extremists.
Sunni Islam now dominates Pakistan and persecution of the 15% of the Muslim community that is Shia, as well as all other religious minorities, is commonplace. The great tug-o-war within modern Pakistan is between Islamic conservatives and radicals chasing a more puritanical Wahhabi style Islamic culture and the educated urban moderates trying to keep the country’s institutions secular and above religion.
The ultra-strict Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia has mobilised great oil wealth into influencing Muslim nations around the world. It is actually the origin of all the Islamic extremism we are seeing around the world today. Pakistan is one of the beneficiaries of their efforts. The radical Taliban is championed by a minority but feared by the majority. In the first decade of this century it shattered Pakistani social cohesion through a series of bombings and attacks on minority religions, especially Christianity but also including the Shia and Sufis Muslim minorities. The result was a climate of fear and economic instability keeping millions in needless poverty.
The Taliban’s homeland is the mountainous north and west, close to the Afghan border and specifically in the Swat Valley. In places that it had usurped political control from the central government it introduced a strict Sharia legal code, emptied hundreds of villages, cost thousands of lives and educated the youth in little more than rote memorisation of the Qur’an. The central government has now wrestled back control over much of the area but allowed Sharia law to continue as a compromise, causing misery for most. Sporadic violence continues today on occasion at religious places of worship all over the country.
English is the official Pakistani government language while Urdu is the national language. Literacy levels in Pakistan hover around 60% but functional literacy is much lower, especially for women and village people.
True Christianity: We know that there were many people from near to this part of the world at the Day of Pentecost who took the Good News back to Afghanistan (Parthia), Persia (Medes), Arabia and Iraq (Mesopotamia). Some of these people could well have also travelled to the Indus Valley on the coastal trade routes. Christianity definitively arrived with the Apostle Thomas when he landed in Karachi in 55AD on his way to South India on a Roman trading ship.
According to the Church historian Eusebius writing in the 4th Century AD, the apostles Thomas and Bartholomew were both assigned to Parthia, Iran and India. By the time of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire in 226AD, there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity.
With the arrival and domination of Islam several centuries in the 8th Century, Christianity slowly died away until the arrival of Catholic missionaries in the 16th Century. If there was a remnant church still surviving at that time it would have been absorbed into the Catholic tradition as happened in many places in Asia where Catholic missionaries first visited and found Christianity already present.
British occupation then saw a large amount of Protestant missions activity in the form of schools, hospitals and other charitable works. By the time of Pakistan’s independence from greater India came in 1947, Christianity had again taken root in the Indus Valley. The 1947 Partition was a tragedy on a massive scale. Some 15 million people were uprooted and some 2,000,000 murdered. In the chaos, many Hindus and Sikh’s elected to declare themselves Christian to avoid Muslim persecution and expulsion from their lands. This has led to the rise of a large nominal Christian community in Pakistan that now amounts to 2% of the population, the largest religious minority in the country.
However, since the turn of the 21st Century there has been both a rise in persecution and a remarkable Christian awakening in Pakistan. In the last decade many western evangelists such as Marilyn Hickey and Leif Hetland, as well as many African and South Asian evangelists have spoken to crowds of up to a million or more in open air rallies where miracles and healings are common. Pakistani Christian television stations now broadcast the Good News into over seventy Middle Eastern countries. Pakistani people are hungry for a touch from God for miracles. There is openness to the gospel never seen before as people begin to question the fundamental tenants of Islam.
Despite these encouraging developments, Pakistan lies at the heart of the un-evangelised world. Over 350 Pakistani people groups and castes can be regarded as unreached and without a church planting movement. Many are in the tribal regions of the north. The northern Pashtuns are famed for their Islamic fundamentalism, fighting spirit and clan loyalty. They are the Taliban’s feeder group, but over 2 million now live in Karachi in the deep south.
The most populous region and home to nearly half of all Pakistanis is the Punjab. It is also the home of Christian witness and of most missions effort. With some 15 million people, Lahore is the proverbial “buckle” of the Punjabi Bible belt. However, the 20 million Seraiki people of southern Punjab and the south eastern deserts have yet to see any great missions effort. The 30 million Sindhi people, also of the south east are some of the poorest and least evangelised people in the country. The Boloch people of the south west are of Persian origin. and they are largely unreached. They comprise around 16% of Pakistan’s population.
39. THE CHURCH IN QATAR: ALSO VISIBLE AND INVISIBLE
History: Qatar is a small finger of land jutting out from the north-east coast of Arabia. Human occupation of Qatar dates back to the immediate post-flood era. Mesopotamia, where the tower of Babylon was located, was the first civilization to have a presence in the area during this Neolithic Period. The peninsula fell under the domain of several different empires during its early years of settlement, including the Seleucid, the Parthians and the Persian.
Many of the inhabitants of Qatar were introduced to Christianity after the faith was dispersed eastward by Mesopotamian traders and monks from in the 3rd Century. Many monasteries were constructed in Qatar during this era as the faith became the major religion of the peninsula. During the latter part of the Christian era, Qatar was known by the Syriac name ‘Beth Qatraye’. The region, however, was not limited to Qatar; it also included Bahrain, Tarout Island, Al-Khatt, and Al-Hasa. Islamic tradition says that in 628AD, most of the Arab tribes converted to Islam, however this is a fiction as in all areas where the Arab Empire spread, it took decades for Islam to emerge and centuries for Christianity to wane. History records famous saints such as Isaac of Nineveh, Gabriel of Qatar and Dadicho Qatraya active in the region after the alleged arrival of Islam.
After Islam eventually took root Qatar became a pearl trading centre and for many centuries was a backwater. The Ottomans expanded their empire into Eastern Arabia and Qatar in 1871 but withdrew from the area in 1915 after the beginning of World War I. In 1916, Qatar became a British protectorate and in 1940 high-quality oil was discovered.
Today: Along with Bahrain, Qatar declined an offer to join the United Arab Emirates during independence talks in the lead up to full autonomy in 1971. In 1995, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized control of the country from his father. Since then Qatar has experienced a moderate degree of liberalisation, including the launch of the Al Jazeera television station, the endorsement of women’s suffrage or right to vote in municipal elections, drafting its first written constitution, and inauguration of many churches at a site called Church City. In 2010, Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, making it the first country in the Middle East to be selected to host the tournament.
Qatar is by far the richest country in the world with an average income 100% higher than for America! This is due to the fact that there are only a few hundred thousand citizens from among the 2.6 million inhabitants that get to share the colossal oil and gas wealth. Some 92% of the total population live in Doha, the capital. Foreign workers amount to around 80% of the population, with Indians and Philippinos being the largest communities and subject to large scale discrimination. Qatar is totally dependent on oil for its wealth, so if it fails, so does the country.
True Christianity: Qatar is a strict Wahhabi-Sunni Muslim nation. This is the strictest kind of Islam, the ideology behind Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. No Qatari Muslim citizen is allowed to leave Islam but expatriate workers are allowed to practice their faith. In fact several denominations have been offered land to build the first churches in the nation in 1,400 years. Operation World says there were some 15,000 evangelical believers in 2010 among the nearly 2 million expatriates. That number has skyrocketed in the last 10 years.
My research suggests there is a strong underground church network among non-Western expatriates. Reports suggest around 100,000 people roll through the new Catholic church building on any Friday, most are from the Philippines. The mass of immigrant workers finalising the many new soccer stadiums are also coming to Christ in significant numbers. Church City houses many new church buildings, but they are still crowded many times a day on days of worship. Many thousands of Christians choose to live nearby. These developments are showing the local authorities that Christianity is a global religion, not a Western one.
For Qatari citizens it is a very different story. It is one of the hardest places on earth to be a Muslim background believer. Persecution levels are very high. The best chance for evangelism is from the thousands of servants working inside Qatari homes and from media ministries of various kinds. I could not find any information on the Qatari MBB underground church apart from this one prayer website.
40. THE CHURCH IN SAUDI ARABIA: ITS THERE AND SLOWLY GROWING!
History: Saudi Arabia is the heart and soul of Islam. Islamic tradition (but not the evidence) says that this is where Islam started and this is where Muhammad lived. Arabic is the heart language of Islam and Mecca is, well, the Mecca of all Islamic worship! This privileged position sets Saudi Arabia apart from all other Islamic countries. If Islam falls here, it falls everywhere.
Saudi Arabia is mentioned in the Bible several times and is always associated with the Ishmaelites, Qedarites, the wildernesses of Shur and Paran, and the Midianites (1 Chronicles 1:29, Isaiah 21:13, 16, Ezekiel 27:21, Jeremiah 49:28). In fact the Arab people have throughout history been more often called Ishmaelites and Hagarites than Arabs due to their ancestral ties to Abraham’s first born son, Ishmael. There were Arabs present at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10) and Paul spent time in Arabia (Galatians 1:17). The Arab ancestral claims to Abraham run very, very deep and to this day are the source of much of the tension between the Muslims/Arabs on one side, and Jews/Christians on the other side.
The church took off in the Arabian Peninsula just as much as most other places in the New Testament era. However, with the Nabataean Empire being the centre of Arab wealth, culture and language, Christianity always competed with the traditional Arab worship of cubes, meteorites and sacred pilgrimage sites. These traditions eventually all found their way into Islam.
During this era the Christian Arab Ghassanid and the pagan Arab Lakhmid tribes moved north into Syria to work for the Byzantines, and to the Euphrates to work for the Persians. They both grew rich and powerful under their respective patronages. With the collapse of the Sassanian Persian Empire in 622 at the hands of the Byzantines, the entire Fertile Crescent was theirs for the two Arab tribes to claim in the name of the particular type of Christianity they had adopted. They literally fell into an empire; it had nothing to do with the fabled conquests of Islamic tradition of which we can find no significant evidence.
Sadly, the Arian theology of these believers, with its belief in the unity of God instead of the Trinity, and subsequent belief that Jesus was a servant of God and not God incarnate, clashed with the theologies of the Byzantines. In fact the Council of Nicaea was called to deal Arius’s theological threats and it from this event that we can begin the countdown to the rise of Islam.
Thus the scene was set for the seemingly eternal theological and civilizational war between Islam and European Christendom that still rages today globally. Because the Arabs were initially winning their wars against what they saw as the heretical Byzantines (and with the Byzantine Catholic worship of Mary, saints and the incorporation of so many Greek traditions, rightly so), the Arabs became convinced God was on their side. They were not yet Muslims in the modern sense but about to become so under the guidance of their leader Abd al Malik and his sons of the Umayyad dynasty and then after 750AD, the astute Abbasid legal scholars of Baghdad. In this period mosques turned from Petra to Mecca, the Nabataean sacred cube and meteorite was moved from Petra to the new pilgrimage site of Mecca and the Qur’an began to be codified.
Between 750 and 1,000AD clever Islamic scholars working from modern day Baghdad back-dated and rewrote their entire Arab history with a great flush of imperial and religious hubris via the fictitious Sunnah and Hadith literature. Mecca was established as a pilgrimage site, the term Muhammad changed from being a title of Christ to a fictitious warrior prophet from the then imaginary city of Mecca, the concept of Islam (originally meaning submission to our way, not the Byzantine way) was invented and the Qur’an was written up from a collection of scripts circulating at the time. (The book is actually two books in one. The first is an adaptation of older Christian literature, and the other is a more recent exhortation to follow the new religion. The first is poetry and the second is prose.).
Thus was born the idea that the Arab Empire, now known as Imperial Islam, was divinely destined to conquer the whole world. Islam then became the big stick that Satan used to reclaim the Middle East from Jesus and try to force Christianity out of Europe. Its claim to have been divinely ordained in an isolated region of the world cut off from all other religions collapses in light of the fact that every single theological concept is not only borrowed from Syriac/Arian Christianity but the very words are also.
In the Middle Ages the Crusaders tried to retake their lost Christian Holy Lands of the Middle East but failed. However, they brought back precious Greek manuscripts that had been preserved by the Muslims. This accident began that great wave of innovation and learning that resulted in European Christendom pulling ahead of the rest of the world. Toward the end of this era it was European technology that enabled its seafaring explorers to discover new routes to India and China, thus avoiding the Muslim/Arab stranglehold on the spice trade. From that point on the Middle East slid into economic obscurity.
This led to the Colonial era when Arabia and Islam were thoroughly humiliated by the European powers who easily carved up the Middle East in gentleman’s agreements. Islam’s theology of world conquest was in tatters. From the soul searching that this caused came the Wahhabi teachings with its call back to the pure Islamic Jihad of Muhammad. This theology is the backbone of all modern jihadi movements today who seek to re-establish the ascendency of Islam over Western culture. They are grinding a very big historical axe! The ties between the Wahhabis and the local rulers also gave rise to the House of Saud as the current ruling clan of Arabia.
In 1947 oil was discovered in vast quantities. If it wasn’t for this accident of history Saudi Arabia and most other Gulf States would still be an economic backwater at the level of modern Yemen. Oil money drives the current Wahhabist resurgence of Islam.
Today: Saudi Arabia is today a nation state of 31 million people owned by a single family, the Saud family. It has an average income of just 40% of the USA (very unevenly distributed)and relies on oil for 90% of its national income. It is still a feudal state with perhaps the worst human rights record of any modern country. It sends hundreds of millions of dollars overseas each year to fund Islamic expansion around the world. The country would collapse if not for the massive amount of foreign workers that do most of the menial tasks. Saudi pride results in most locals considering themselves above these jobs. Unemployment and idleness among Saudis is therefore very high, education is not taken very seriously. Women are treated as vassals that rarely work and are legally transferred from family to husband at marriage. Their rights are miniscule. Shiites make up 8% of the population and are actively discriminated against.
The future of Saudi Arabia is very uncertain. It faces great social and economic stress from its disenfranchised and frustrated youth, combined with their access to global ideas via the millions of internet VPN’s active in the country, its total reliance on foreign workers and oil exports, its brittle, hated and inequitable political system with no feedback loops, its constant meddling in regional wars, its reliance on the USA for military covering against Iran, and its Wahhabist conservative clerics. When the kingdom runs out of oil (and Ghawar, the source of over 50% of its oil revenue, is already seventy years old) I predict it will run out of food and international friends and a future. It is now desperately trying to diversify its economy to avoid such a fate.
True Christianity: A society that destroys women’s rights, severely restricts its peoples expression, demands total subservience to the national religion and bullies its way around the world via its toxic ideologies is ripe for a move of God! And the church is definitely growing inside this feudal country.
First up, the nine Christian satellite television stations broadcasting from Lahore in Pakistan are having an impact. I spoke to the owners of one of these stations, Isaac Television, and they said their highest rate of response comes from Saudi Arabia where they link new believers with trusted networks of underground churches.
A couple from the USA have been leading a public church of 1,200 people in Riyadh for the last eight years. They started in their home and it grew into an expatriate congregation of mainly Asian and African believers, with a few westerners tagging along. They asked permission to rent a hall and surprisingly their request was accepted. In 2011 they even held an outdoor evangelistic rally in Riyadh with some 5-8,000 attending, including many of the 200 or so underground churches that litter the city.
An Indian friend of mine who has started over 400 churches has four in Saudi Arabia where expatriate Indians secretly meet. He said they are his strongest churches and services will include some two to three hours of intercession for their employers and the country. They pray for miracles, divine visitations and the opportunity to pray for the sick so the power of Jesus can be seen.
Saudi citizens are some of the highest users of the internet in the world, and they are using this technology to research the truth about their own religion and about Jesus in ways the government is desperately trying to stop. Many Middle Eastern church leaders call the internet the Fifth Gospel. One report says that individual conversions have now morphed into Saudi families coming to Christ. In a nation that has no acceptable social structure outside the state, the mosque and the family, this is a huge break-though.
Sadly though, many new Saudi believers pay a high price for their spiritual liberation. Fatima Al-Matayri became famous for her Christian blogs, until her brother, a member of the religious police found out and hideously tortured and murdered her in front of the whole family. Conversion from Islam is punishable by death throughout Saudi Arabia.
41. THE CHURCH IN SENEGAL: THE COUNTRY NEEDS OUR PRAYERS!
History: Senegal occupies a prominent position as the western-most country in Africa and it completely surrounds the country of Gambia. Humans came here with the first wave of humanity after the Great Flood. By the Roman era the Berbers of North Africa were pushing down into the region, while the Wolof and Fulani Negroid peoples were establishing themselves from the East and south. Senegal was another of those many melting pots of humanity in Africa and the Middle East. In the Christian era we find Senegal lying in the western shadow of the formidable Ghanaian Empire to its east and a conduit of trade between Rome and the sub-Saharan world. In time the Wolof peoples would come to dominate this region and to this day they control the culture of Senegal.
With the coming of the Arab Empire in North Africa, commerce and cultural exchange continued and increased. Some Wolof and Fulani people began to convert to Islam, but not in great numbers. By the time the Europeans arrived, Senegal was still less than 30% Muslim. Animist religions with their heavy involvement in witchcraft and voodoo were the order of the day.
By the middle of the 15th Century the Europeans were active on the west coast of Africa. First came the Portugese, then the Dutch as explorers and traders. Dakar was a natural spot for trade. The global rivalry between the British and the French eventually saw the area come under the control of the French, except for the narrow region surrounding the Gambia River which was retained by the British and is now the nation of Gambia. The entire West African Coast played a central part on the tragedy that was the Atlantic slave trade to the Americas and it is quite possible that a portion of black Americans today are Senegalese by descent.
French power was centred around the city of Dakar and slowly over several centuries the local population was allowed some say in their own affairs. This culminated in full independence in 1960. The march of cultural Islam in Senegal and the rest of the French West African colonies was relentless during the 20th Century, growing from 40% of the population to some 90% today. Having said that, the vast majority of that 90% of the Senegalese are Muslim in name only, with little understanding and shallow roots in the religion.
Today: Since independence Senegal has been one of the few African countries to embrace and respect the rules of democracy, a point of which they are very proud. They are equally proud of their religious tolerance mainly because there has been such an impotent example of Christianity on display. Sadly democracy and tolerance has not translated into economic development. The country consistently comes in near the bottom of the International Human Development list: The average life span is not much over 50 years, half the population is under 20 years, and literacy is just 40%. A unique feature of Senegal is the power of the Sufi brotherhoods, of which there are three. They are wealthy, well organised and powerful; literally states within a state.
True Christianity: Sadly, true Christianity has only recently arrived in Senegal. If there was a Christian presence in the New Testament era coming down with the Berbers from the north it has not left any records. With the French came Catholicism and the country is now 6% Catholic. Their influence is larger than their numbers because they are well educated and run many of the countries hospitals and schools. Because there was no vibrant evangelical witness during the entire colonial era, most of those who were Animist in religious orientation in previous generations switched to Islam in protest against the dead European religion. This was in stark contrast to the situation in former British colonies where Christianity is now flourishing in Africa.
For the moment there is freedom of religion in Senegal and there are some 50,000 evangelical believers in the country, mostly around Dakar and other centres on the coast. Little missions work has been done in the vast swathe of villages in the interior. The country still awaits a move of God that is indigenous in culture but Biblical in spirituality. There are some reports of new spiritual foundations being laid and an openness to the Good News on the internet, but they are few and far between.
42. THE CHURCH IN SIERRA LEONE: A MISSED OPPORTUNITY
History: Sierra Leone is a small tropical country on the south west coast of West Africa. It has been inhabited for at least 2,500 years and for most of that time it was isolated from much of the world due to its impenetrable rainforests. Sierra Leone was host to the tsetse fly, which carried a disease fatal to horses and the zebu cattle used by the Mande people to the north. This protected the people of Sierra Leone from conquests by the Mande and other African empires. This also reduced the Islamic influence of Islam. It was only in the 18th Century that Islam became widely adopted along the coast.
In 1462, Portuguese explorer, Pedro de Sintra, mapped the hills surrounding what is now Freetown Harbour, naming the hills Serra da Leoa, or Lioness Mountains, which eventually became the name of the country. In later centuries many of its people were deported to the Americas as slaves. However, after the American war of independence, the British took thousands of freed slaves to Canada and London, and eventually established a colony for them around Freetown. Freetown later became the dropping off point for any slave ships intercepted by the British navy after that empire abolished slavery in 1807.
These returning Africans were from many areas of Africa, but principally the west coast. Along with many black migrants from coming from the USA in the 19th Century, these peoples created a distinct hybrid African/Western ethnicity called the Krio people (creole people) and a trading language called Krio which became commonly used among many of the ethnicities in the country. The Krio people were black but Western in outlook because they had lost their African language and cultural roots. They were English speaking, and often Christian, so considered themselves above the indigenous peoples. In time this would create a huge barrier to the spread of the Gospel.
In 1896 the British annexed the interior of Sierra Leone and so began the conquest of the local peoples. As more locals were educated they began to push for more autonomy and the country was granted independence in 1961. This was sadly followed by a succession stupid wars and brutal anarchy which cost 100,000 lives and culminated in the return of British military forces which finally brought about a restoration of democracy in 2002.
Today: Sierra Leone’s seven million people are at or near the very bottom of the global HDI index. It has a life expectancy of less than 50 years and literacy levels are abysmal. The average income is a dollar a day but for two thirds of the population subsistence agriculture is the only option. In addition, corruption is endemic and the country’s infrastructure lies in ruins because of the war. Sadly however, there seems to be very little urgency on the part of the government to tackle any of Sierra Leones many pressing problems.
Satan has this country firmly in his grip and this can be seen in the enormous influence of secret societies, the Freemasons and the occult have over the lives of most people. This is the prime cause of the country’s profound social darkness. The casualties of war are everywhere, from the countless orphans, to the countless amputees, to the countless child slave soldiers and the countless victims of rape and torture. Then there is the mental trauma that most of the population suffer through in silence. Sierra Leone needs our prayers as few other countries do.
True Christianity: In 1785 Freetown built the very first Protestant church building in West Africa and at that stage there were virtually no Muslims anywhere beyond a few traders on the coast. This region was open for the Gospel. Yet after 235 years Christianity has not penetrated the culture to any great extent. Sadly the country is now 70% Muslim, about 13% Christian and the rest animist. Only around 4% of the population know Jesus.
The historic Christian denominations have grown impotent while the newer denominations are shallow and infected with prosperity teachings, animistic practices and Freemasonry. And the true church that loves Jesus is being overwhelmed by the size of the task of ministering to a wounded society, especially as most evangelical church leaders have only a rudimentary education.
Islam was followed by a very small minority of the population when the British arrived, yet it is now the dominant religion. Its growth was spurred along by the opening up of the interior to trade with countries to the north who were Muslim, the many Muslim evangelists coming to the country from the Middle East, and in recent years by the mosque planting efforts of the Pakistani and Bangladesh UN peacekeepers who proved to be very effective evangelists for Islam.
Sierra Leone is therefore a major success story for global Islamic evangelism, and this has happened right under the nose of British Protestant Christians. This is largely because the pride and arrogance of the Krio ethnic peoples who saw themselves as superior to the indigenous Africans. In response the locals have rejected Christianity and embraced Islam.
43. THE CHURCH IN SOMALIA: TINY, PERSECUTED, BUT GROWING
History: Somalia is a nation of around 15 million people that occupies the Horn of Africa. It is an ancient land, with rock paintings being some of the oldest in the world. Its earliest civilisations are intricately connected to those of Egypt and Ethiopia as evidenced by the Wargarde Wall and many conical pyramidical structures belong to the ancient Land of Punt. In that era the Land of Punt enjoyed trading relationships with the Egyptians, Greeks, Phoenicians, Indians and Romans. Frankincense and Myrrh were prized exports and it was the Somalis who first domesticated a local wild animal, the camel. Being just outside the orbit of the Romans, Somalis were able to control the lucrative cinnamon trade from India and amass great wealth around the time of Christ.
Somalia eventually came under the control of the Arab Empire very early on and slowly adopted Islam, with various sultanates vying for control of the region for the next thousand years. In the late 19th century European powers began the Scramble for Africa, which inspired the Dervish leader Mohammed Abdullah Hassan to rally support from across the Horn of Africa and begin one of the longest colonial resistance wars ever recorded. In several of his poems and speeches he emphasized that the British have destroyed our religion and made our children their children and that the Christian Ethiopians in league with the British Christians were bent upon plundering the political and religious freedom of the Somali nation. Thus began the modern Somalian hatred for all things Christian. During this period Italy controlled the southern half of Somalia and the British controlled the north. During the 1930’s Italy attacked both Ethiopia and British Somaliland. In 1941 both Somalia and Ethiopia were retaken by the British in a little known theatre of World War II. Independence was achieved in 1960.
Today: After independence Cold War rivalries saw Somalia quickly disintegrate into wars with Ethiopia, then clan warfare, then civil war and brutal dictatorships, with 14 failed governments in 14 years. Since 2000 the Al Shabab Islamists have filled some of the power vacuum in the south, where fighting between them and the official government has become endemic around the capital of Mogadishu and any Western intervention is seen as another invasion of the Christians.
Against this depressing trend, Somaliland, the ex-British controlled region in the northwest, and Puntland on the Horn of Africa, have set up their own independent national governments and become a model of peace and good governance compared to the ex-Italian colony around Mogadishu to the south. The popular image of a Somalian failed state portrayed in the media only applies to the southern third of the country and half the population. Puntland has very low rates of poverty compared to the rest of the country while both the breakaway states are functioning democracies!
Geographically the country is largely flat and hot. Mountains in the north and two Ethiopian highland rivers in the south sustain the only agriculture. The Somali people are clan-based Sunni Muslims, and about 70% still follow a nomadic pastoralism, one of the highest percentages in the world and making it very difficult for traditional Christian missions methods to penetrate the culture. Intriguingly it Somalia right next to Arabia but only around 2% of Somalis are Arabs.
Somalia is Africa’s most failed state along with Sierra Leone. The average income is 0.5% of the USA and the narcotic leaf called qat drains the energy and morale of the nation. Over 2 million people are internally displaced and UN humanitarian workers are routinely targeted by Al Shabab who control large sections of the south and dish out a harsh form of Sharia law. Somalia has also become a byword for smugglers and pirates. Most women still suffer female mutilation and the country has the lowest health per capita budget of any nation on earth. Need I go on!
True Christianity: Bear with me for a moment while I reconstruct Somalia’s religious history. Both modern Western historians and influential Somali scholars have tried to delete the history of Christianity in Somalia, and this has bred the myth that Christianity is a foreign and hostile religion. Somali people are therefore are deeply antagonistic toward Christianity.
Christianity DID NOT come via British colonial missionaries. It arrived 1,800 years earlier with traders not long after the day of Pentecost and thrived alongside the many Jewish locals. Written records, archaeological remains and the use of symbols such as the cross on graves, contract notes, camel brands and other places point to a once deeply embedded Christian culture. There are several written, Arab sources from as late as the 10th century that still described a port city in present-day northwest Somalia, Zeila, then known then as Seylac, as a Christian city whose king received tribute from the small Muslim minority! A letter from the Catholic missionary, Francis Xavier, to Jesuit headquarters dated from September 1542, describes a Christian population on the nearby island of Socotra who claim to be converts of St. Thomas. In 1854 the first European explorer to visit Somalia described ruins of what the local Warsangeli clan claimed to be a church in what is now Sanaag Region of eastern Somaliland. In addition, many of the all-important clan genealogies of the Somalis do not become Islamised until the 15th Century and there are at least four Somali clans whose origin is Jewish. Many people also have Biblical names that are not used by any other Muslims.
Sadly, rivalry with Christian Orthodoxy in nearby Ethiopia over hundreds of years gradually forced the Somalis deeper into Islam and by the time of the European colonists little remained of what was once a largely Orthodox Christian region before the arrival of Islam.
By 1913 there were virtually no Christians in the Somali territories, with only about 100–200 followers coming from the schools and orphanages of the few Catholic missions in the British Somaliland protectorate. There were also no known Catholic missions in Italian Somaliland during the same period. In the 1970s, during the reign of Somalia’s then Marxist government, church-run schools were closed and missionaries sent home. In December 2013, the government even released a directive prohibiting the celebration of Christian festivities in the country. This is hostile territory for any Somali thinking of following Jesus. The lawlessness of the southern part of Somalia just adds to the fear barrier.
Miraculously, there are still some 26,000 Orthodox Christians living in Somalia; remnants of the ancient church. However there are only around 4,000 Somalis known to be evangelical Christians. Public confession of Christ is to invite retribution. Little is known of secret believers, but they are sure to be there as many Somalis are now using the internet to investigate the empty pages of their pre-Islamic history. In addition, large numbers of the 4 million strong Somali diaspora have become Christians. Operation World says an infant Somali church is emerging from the chaos and those in power admit Somalia is no longer 100% Muslim.
44. THE CHURCH IN SUDAN: AMAZING GROWTH AMISDST PERSECUTION
History: Sudan is Africa’s largest country and the name means Land of the Black People, a term coined by the Arabs to describe the Nubian peoples living below Egypt. The modern map is a result of British imperialism but the this is the home of the ancient Nubian Kingdom of Cush which was deeply entwined in the affairs of Egypt. Sudan even have their own pyramids! The Cushite kingdom lasted thousands of years, right up to the 4th Century AD and this kingdom is specifically mentioned in Isaiah 18:1 and Habakkuk 3:7. In fact Numbers 12:1 says Moses’ second wife was a Cushite.
After the 4th Century the once formidable kingdom disintegrated into three separate Christian kingdoms. These kingdoms were able to repel the Arab Empire on several occasions and thus kept their political autonomy for many centuries. This ushered in a golden age for this Afro-Byzantine Christian region through to the 11th Century. In this era the Nubians developed an alphabet based on Coptic and women enjoyed high social status and access to education and land. They often used their wealth to endow churches and church paintings. Even the royal succession was matrilineal, with the son of the king’s sister being the rightful heir!
From the 12th Century onward migration from Egypt increased and in the 15th Century Sudan was overrun by Muslim Arab Bedouins. Sufi holy men then began to spread Islam up and down the Nile communities. However, the Sudanese folk Islam that evolved preserved many rituals stemming from the prior Christian traditions until the recent times. In 1821 the Ottoman Turks conquered Sudan, and in 1896 the British wrestled control of the country, keeping it until independence in 1956.
Today: Sudan today is a byword for misery and conflict and it was oil that provided Sudan with 90% of its income to fight those wars. Life expectancy for Sudan’s 50 million people is low and education was largely missing for a decade for many of its citizens. The vastness of Sudan’s territory and the racial mixing of Arabs with Nubians over many centuries has resulted in some 597 ethnic groups and 134 languages.
Civil war has raged throughout most of its time as an independent nation. This is because of the country’s increasingly violent Islamism and the remarkable growth of Christianity, particularly in the south. After the deaths of countless southerners and the displacement of 2.5 million people, peace was finally secured in 2005. North and South Sudan then began to slowly rebuild infrastructure.
On the 9th of July 2011, South Sudan became an independent country, the worlds newest. The two nations today enjoy an uneasy peace. Sadly, within a year or two of South Sudan’s independence fighting broke out between its two major tribal groups, the Dinka and the restless Nuer tribes. This conflict alone cost another 50,000 lives and displaced millions.
However, southern Christians were not the only ones fighting the government. In Darfur some 300,000 people were killed when separatists defied northern control. As I said, Sudan is a byword for misery. Today Sudan is in the grip of a Chinese led investment boom, with all the usual Chinese strings attached.
True Christianity: As mentioned, Christianity came here very early and put down deep roots. However, these were ripped out one by one over the last thousand years. The destructive radical Islamist vision of president Al Bashir being just the latest wave of forced Islamisation. Most churches, Christian hospitals and schools in the north were systematically destroyed by his government. Never-the-less, a remarkable flowering of true Christianity has been underway since independence. From just 1.6 million in 1980, Christians now number some 12 million, mostly in the centre and south. South Sudan is now 80% Christian, but still very tribal.
Just as remarkable is the turning away from Islam of many people in the centre and north of Sudan after witnessing the atrocities of the government which ruled in the name of a puritanical Wahhabist Islam. Whole villages and tribes have crossed over to Jesus, even though the penalty is death. Churches are being planted in previously unreached areas as many refugees return home with the fire of God in their hearts. In fact Sudan is one of the few established Muslim countries that is losing significant parts of its population to Christianity. This goes a long way to explaining why Satan tried to use force to squash the growing church, but it backfired, as it did the day Jesus died on the cross!
Sudan is now very open to the Gospel as most northerners now have much sympathy for their southern brothers. This has led to some unusually open doors to preach in the north. Many Sudanese studying in Egypt are also coming to faith. Most new Christians in Sudan are pentecostal believers, and the church is now one of the fastest growing in the world at over 8% per year. The blood of the martyrs truly is the seed of the church!
45. THE CHURCH IN SYRIA: GREEN SHOOTS FROM TERRIBLE SUFFERING
History: Syria…where to start! Located at the top of the Fertile Crescent, Syria is one of the oldest civilisations on the planet and before colonial times it consisted of modern day Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan as well as the land we now know as Syria. Its modern borders are therefore quite artificial.
Its capital, Damascus, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It birthed one of the world’s oldest written languages. Its favoured geography meant that it was fought over by the Sumerians, Eblaites, Akkadians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Hittites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Amorites, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans…and that was before Christ! Not to be outdone, Syria had its own empire at various times during its 3,000 year pre-Roman existence.
Syria is mentioned 71 times in the Bible. It was settled by a grandson of Noah, Aram (Genesis 10:22-23) and was often called Aramaea in ancient times. The language Jesus spoke was actually Aramaic and is still spoken by hundreds of thousands of Syrians today. Syria was the subject of multiple prophecies by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and others. Damascus was often considered an adversary of Israel. David conquered it, as did Solomon (1 Chronicles 18:1-13). Naaman the leper was a Syrian king.
In the New Testament we find that Jesus was famous in Syria (Matthew 4:23-25) and he ministered to Syrians while travelling through southern Lebanon (Matthew 15:21-28). Paul, a native of the Syrian city of Antioch, was converted on his way to the Syrian city of Damascus (Acts 9)! The believers were also first called Christians in the Syrian city of Antioch (Acts 11:25-26) and Antioch was one of the great centres of early Christianity. After the New Testament era Syria quickly became a staunchly Christian country and was responsible for sending hundreds of missionaries around the world, including to South India where the Syrian church still finds its largest base at 3 million people.
In fact the Syrian Orthodox church’s roots were so deeply embedded in early Christianity that it considered itself as the true church in the face of Byzantine and early Catholic opposition. Damascus was therefore the natural home of the largely Christian Arab Empire which emerged from the chaos that marked the end of the Persian Empire and the end of Byzantine influence in the Middle east in 622AD (a date that was later retrospectively designated as the start of the Islamic Empire). In other words, contrary to Islamic tradition, the early years of the Arab Empire were not Islamic, but Syrian Christian of the heretical Arian/Monarchian theological traditions. Evidence for these strong Christian roots at the beginning of the Arab Empire can be seen in the 691AD inscription on the inside of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem, the oldest authenticated statement of this combined Arian theology/proto Islamic theology in existence. In fact the term Quran is a Syriac Christian term referring to a liturgy and every single theological term in Islam comes directly from the Syriac language and its Christian teachings.
As the Arab Empire transitioned from Monarchist/Arian Christian theology to a hardened orthodox Islamic theology in the centuries that followed, Syrian Islam stiffened its position toward the Syriac Orthodox church.
Along the way several significant offshoots of Islam emerged in Syria in the form of the Alawites; who as heretical Muslims believe in a trinity and the taking of communion wine, and the Druze; who hold to elements of Greek philosophy and Hinduism as well as Islam, both of which are considered heresy by orthodox Muslims.
In colonial times the French took control of Syria from the Ottoman Turks but battled to keep a lid on nationalist and sectarian sentiment. Amidst the sectarian violence, the state of Lebanon was carved off Syria to provide a homeland for the minority Christians in 1943.
After World War 2 Syria gained its independence and quickly became a military state implacably opposed to that other newly arrived state to its south, Israel. Meddling in the affairs of Lebanon has also been a favourite pastime of the Syrian government.
Today: During French rule the Alawites quickly filled the power vacuum left by the defeated Sunni Ottoman Turks and ascended into most of the important civil and military positions. This has led to their domination of Syrian politics ever since. Intriguingly, Syria has maintained its position as a staunchly secular state to this day. The 70% majority Sunni Syrians constantly chaffed under Alawite autocratic rule and this is what steered Syria into the almost inevitable civil war that began in 2011: A war that has resulted in half a million dead, one million injured, 12 million refugees, and an international refugee crisis that has rattled the political foundations of Europe.
Amazingly, the Assad government has survived international military opposition from Turkey, the USA, Israel, Saudi Arabia and most other Sunni Islamists via the brutality of ISIS. This resistance was made possible through Syria’s links with Russian air power, Shia Iranian ground forces, and a strong internal coalition of minority groups within the country, including the 7% Kurds, 7% Bedouin, 6-10% Christians, 2% Druze, moderate Sunnis opposed to ISIS, and the not insignificant number of secular-minded citizens.
The Syrian civil war was yet another classic Shia-Sunni Middle Eastern conflict. The vast majority of the 12 million displaced refugees are Sunni Muslims and most will never return. Now that the war is largely over, their villages and towns are being re-populated by the minorities and the victors. The future of Syria is anything but clear! Click here for a very in-depth analysis of the civil war and its roots.
True Christianity: As already mentioned, Jesus preached on the border of Syria and was very popular among them. The early church was intimately connected with Syria. The great missionary thrusts of the early centuries were directed from Syrian Antioch and the Syrian church was one of two great theological power bases for the first 700 years of the Christian faith. Between 640 and 740AD no fewer than six Popes came from Syria!
But it was downhill from then on as Islam slowly eroded this great Christian heritage. Even so, eastern Syria remained almost 50% Christian right up to the modern era. It was the great massacre of 1860 and the genocide of 1914-1920 (two events which saw hundreds of thousands of Syrian Christians murdered and just shy of a million Christians out of 2.5 million Syrians migrate to the USA) which transformed Syria into today’s largely Sunni Muslim state. The vast Sunni majority is therefore only a recent phenomenon, while some 3% of the American people are now of Syrian descent!
However, as awful and tragic as the recent civil war was, it is beginning to turn the religious tide in both Syria and beyond its borders in the new Syrian Diaspora. True Christianity is on the rise. Churches are popping up in once staunchly Sunni villages. Refugees to Lebanon are coming into contact with its increasing number of evangelical churches. Syrian refugees to Europe are flooding into the local German and Austrian churches, looking for the “Religion of Peace”. Interest in Jesus is high, and for the first time in history a powerful move of God has begun among the Alawite elite after a single person was woken 49 times in 49 nights with a dream of Jesus calling him some 5 years before the war started! The internet, underground church networks and revulsion toward what ISIS did in the name of Islam are all factors feeding this upsurge of interest in Jesus.
The old wineskin of a stale and sectarian Christian orthodoxy is giving way to a vibrant faith based on personal relationship with the living God who died on the cross to set mankind free! I believe the rest of this century will see a remarkable re-awakening of Syria’s historical centrality to the Christian mission in the Middle East. Pray with me for this to come about!
46. THE CHURCH IN TAJIKISTAN: REBORN AFTER A 700 YEAR SLUMBER!
History: For those of you who get your STAN countries mixed up, Tajikistan is above Afghanistan, below Kyrgyzstan and with Uzbekistan to the west! Civilisation there is old, very old. Tajikistan was previously home to the ancient culture of Sarazm, which is as old as the early Egyptians. From there it was part of the Oxus civilisation, the Achaemenid Empirte, the Sassanian Empire, the Hephthalite Empire, the Greek Empire, the Samanid Empire, the Mongol Empire, the Timurid dynasty, the Khanate of Bukhara and the Russian/Soviet Empire. It was the Russians who artificially set the modern borders. Tajikistan’s few east-west mountain valleys ware very much just a passing through zone for external armies as most of the locals were nomads until they were forced into settlements by Stalin in the 1930’s.
Most religions have thrived here too; from Hinduism, Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, Persian Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. However, with the coming of the Mongols and the devastation they left, everything changed. Within two centuries of their arrival from the north the Mongols had converted to the Islam of the south and began to pressure local religions to change allegiances. Then the infamous Tamerlane deliberately killed some 7 million Christians in Central Asia in a pogrom of unimaginable scale and misery. These deaths were just some of the 17 million non-Muslims that were massacred by him in the name of expanding Islam in Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. This act of bastardry effectively wiped Christianity off the map in this part of the world and it must never be forgotten by Christians everywhere.
From this low point onwards Tajikistan effectively fell asleep spiritually and politically until the arrival of the Russians in the 1860’s who were looking for stable supplies of cotton and other commodities for their empire.
Today: Independence from the Soviet Union was achieved in 1991, however, the nation almost immediately fell into civil war that involved various factions fighting one another; these factions were often distinguished by clan loyalties. More than 500,000 residents fled during this time because of persecution, increased poverty and better economic opportunities in the West or in other former Soviet republics. Most went to Russia. From the mess Emomali Rahmon seized power and has ruled ever since.
The country is 93% mountainous and bitterly poor. It is one of many former Soviet colonies that has struggled to find peace and freedom. The Tajik people are mainly of Iranian/Median descent and, because of their conformist religion and previous political subjugation, they are extremely conservative and adverse to showing initiative. Consequently Tajikistan’s income is just 2% of the USA (and half of which comes from remittances from citizens working in Russia!) and its static dictatorship perpetuates both privilege and poverty. Surprisingly, the country has many political suitors as the great powers jostle for influence with the government and the region.
The country is mainly Sunni Muslim, but this is in name only. Most Tajiks are not practicing formal Islam. Instead they are heavily involved in folk superstitions and Zoroastrianism. Middle Eastern money meant that mosques sprouted up everywhere after independence and some of the civil war combatants were pushing for an Islamic state. Mosque attendance is now down to 10% in the urban areas, and because Emomali Rahmon’s government is secular, they now keep a very close eye on all religious activities, suppressing and arresting any activist from any religion it deems a threat, and this includes Christians who evangelise.
True Christianity: After Emperor Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity in 313AD, many Christians in the Persian Empire came under threat so travelled east into Central Asia. By 650AD there were 20 Nestorian Dioceses in modern day Tajikistan. Mass conversions are recorded in 781-2AD and later in 1007AD, when 200,000 Turks and Mongols became Christians. The Turkic Kipchaks are also known to have converted to Christianity at the suggestion of the Georgians as they were allied in their conflicts against the Muslims. From 1120AD, there was a Kipchak national Christian church and an influential clergy. And, as you have already read, Tamerlane changed all that in one blood-soaked generation.
The modern era saw Tajikistan under the grip of the Atheistic Communists so little evangelism has reached this once largely Christian land for almost 700 years. With the fall of the Soviets, Christians had a brief window of opportunity to engage locals. This is when the modern church was replanted. There are now some 7,000 evangelical believers in the country, but only about 1,000 are ethnic Tajiks. The rest are from minority ethnic groups such as the Russians and Koreans. There are now far more ethnic Tajik believers to be found in Afghanistan, Russia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan than in Tajikistan.
Prayer Points: Open Christian activity is increasingly coming under threat from the government and this is driving Christian activity underground. Tajikistan needs a new style of Christian ministry if it is going to come to Christ. Opening church buildings, ordaining professional clergymen and other Western formats will never win back this country. It must be low key, underground simple churches relationally spreading from household to household as was common in the New Testament era. This is what we should pray for.
47. THE CHURCH IN TUNISIA: ONCE MIGHTY, NOW TINY
History: Tunisia is not mentioned in the Bible, but its next door neighbour, Libya, was the home of Simon of Cyrene. In ancient times Tunisia was primarily inhabited by Berbers who were descended from nomads from the east, probably the Tower of Babel. Phoenician immigration began in the 12th century BC and these immigrants founded the fabled city of Carthage with its worship of Baal and widespread child sacrifice. Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, stands today where Carthage once stood.
A major mercantile power and a military rival of the Roman Republic, Carthage controlled the southern shores of the Mediterranean for almost a thousand years. One of its leaders was Hannibal, who made himself famous by crossing the Alps with African elephants to take their perpetual battle to right into Rome. The Romans finally conquered Carthage a generation later and occupied Tunisia for most of the next 800 years.
It was during this era that Christianity came to Carthage and the whole region eventually became Christian. Tertullian, the famous Christian theologian who helped shape our ideas about the Trinity, was a local. Perpetua, a nursing mother and one of the first notable Christian women to be martyred was from Carthage. Augustine, one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers, also spent much of his life in Carthage. Finally Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage was an important early Christian writer. This nation punched above its weight in the early church!
However, with the decline of the Byzantine Empire Arabs quickly conquered the whole of Tunisia by 697. At this stage they were still largely Christian in outlook but they followed a very heretical understanding of Jesus. More on that later. Some 800 years later the Ottoman Empire eventually conquered North Africa between 1534 and 1574 and held sway for over 300 years. It was the Ottoman Turks who encouraged Tunisian and Algerian pirates to abduct over a million Christian Europeans from their coastal villages and sell them into Islamic slavery. This practice was only stopped by combined efforts of the newly minted U.S. navy alongside several other European states in 1830. French colonization of Tunisia soon followed. Tunisia finally gained independence from France in 1957.
Today: After independence Tunisia was effectively a one party state for decades. It took the protests of hundreds of thousands of people representing most sectors of society to force the resignation of one of Africa’s most corrupt presidents in 2011. This sparked the famous Arab Spring revolutions throughout the Arab world. Free and fair elections are now the norm which makes Tunisia a very rare Arab country! However, the many secular and liberal Tunisians worry about the creeping influence of conservative Islam in politics. Though a small minority, conservative Muslims are very vocal.
The country has an income of around 10% of the USA. Its French connections have created a largely secular society that looks to Europe for social cues. Since the 2011 uprisings Tunisia now prides itself as one of the most progressive Islamic societies in the world that provides many social equalities for women.
True Christianity: As said above, Tunisia was once a Christian powerhouse. A few centuries before the coming of the Muslim masters Arian and Monarchian theology had taken root. These teachings say that God is one, not three and Jesus is just his messenger or prophet. Arian and Monarchian theology evolved into the Islamic religion between 660 and 750 so it was very easy to for many North Africans to welcome the Arabs as Christian liberators from the vice-like control of the saint (idol) worshipping, Mary worshipping Trinitarian Catholic Byzantines.
With the formalisation of Islamic theology in the ensuing centuries, a slow withering of the true faith in Tunisia began. Many Catholics emigrated to Europe and because of the lack of a monastic tradition Islam eventually came to totally dominate the region. Still, a letter in Catholic Church archives from the 14th century shows that there were still four bishoprics left in North Africa. Most of Tunisia’s current population of 25,000 local Christians are Catholics who came to faith during colonial times.
Sadly, a century of evangelical missionary effort has produced little fruit in Tunisia. The true church only began to grow after 9/11. Local Christians were forbidden from owning their own buildings and bank accounts, but with the liberalisation and increased freedoms of conscience since 2011 restrictions have been eased. This means that the new Christian groups now emerging are feeling safer and this is increasing their speed of growth. It is even legal now to be able to change your faith! Not many Tunisian believers have many years of Christian experience so the church lacks maturity. It is also suspected there are many isolated and hidden believers who have come to faith via the internet. Sadly, the further you radiate out from Tunis, the less believers you will find.
48. THE CHURCH IN TURKEY: PAULS BACKYARD IS NOW ALMOST EMPTY
History: Modern day Turkey is a remnant of the once Great Ottoman Empire, but its history goes back much further than that. It is one of the oldest inhabited regions of the world. Because it is the natural bridge between Europe and Asia, the roll call of civilisations that have come and gone from this land is lengthy: From the Akkadians, to the Hittites, Egyptians, both Persian Empires, the Assyrians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Huns, Mongols, Gokturks and the Muslims! It was the Muslim Gokturks, an who originated somewhere in modern day Central Asia (think TURKmenistan), that conquered Christian Anatolia and now dominate the country that takes their name, but from ancient times was called Anatolia.
For many centuries the Turks lived to the north and on the periphery of the Muslim world. Around the turn of the first millennium the Turks began converting to the Muslim faith, and in 1025AD the Seljuk Turkish clan migrated east into Anatolia. They eventually established the Seljuk Empire, which the first Christian crusade was designed to defeat. During this era most of Anatolia slowly came under the stranglehold of Islam. Sadly, Christianity in that region was stale and fossilised, so over the centuries many locals gradually converted to the new and intolerant imperial faith. Finally, in 1453AD the Turks conquered the once mighty Christian Orthodox city of Constantinople, a prize they had wanted since 674AD.
Thus began the Ottoman Empire, which quickly rose to the leadership of the Muslim world and caused great distress for a Europe that was just waking up to the modern era and from a massive spiritual slumber. The Ottoman’s purpose was the Islamisation of Europe and to that end they would conquer Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania, Croatia, and parts of the Ukraine. Their downfall would only come on the outskirts of Vienna in 1683AD at the hands of the largest cavalry charge in history. I visited the battle site in 2015.
The once great Ottomans then slowly became the sick man of Europe as the Christian world leapt ahead of them technologically. It was this backwardness that led to their massive defeat in World War One and the emergence of modern Turkey under Ataturk, who moved the country toward Europe and secularism. Their defeat in 1918 is also the reason for the existence of Israel today and the current borders of the countries of the Middle East, carved out at the end of WW2.
Today: Turkey is a nation torn in different directions. It straddles Europe and Asia but is neither fully Western nor Middle Eastern. It is officially secular, yet increasingly Muslim. Istanbul in the west looks to Europe and secularism for its culture, while the east of Turkey looks to conservative Islam for its identity. Turkey is the most economically successful of all non-oil producing Muslim countries, yet still one of the poorest in Europe with an income of only 25% of the USA. It is ruled by an increasingly authoritarian and Islamist president who dreams of re-igniting the Islamist Ottoman Empire’s influence across the Middle East, but who has destroyed the nations finances in the process.
Turkey is at a crossroads, both literally and figuratively. Its once mighty church has disappeared. Its empire is gone. Its place in the world is uncertain and its future in an increasingly unstable Middle East is far from secure. Its desperate wish to join the EU has seen a change in the law in 2007 that now allows the free registration of Christian churches, and there are now about 100 of these, half are house churches. But yet in the 16 years that President Erdogan’s party has been in power, the number of religious high schools across Turkey has increased more than tenfold. The people I spoke to in Istanbul in 2016 hate the man, but he keeps winning elections.
True Christianity: Much of the action in the book of Acts and half of Paul’s letters involved Turkey, as did Johns Revelation. In fact Paul was born in the Turkish city of Tarsus and the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Lystra, Perge, Antioch, Pergamum, Laodicea and the district of Galatia feature prominently in his writings.
After the early years of the faith, Turkey was basically a Christian province of Rome and subject to much persecution. The amazing catacombs of Cappadocia (Galatia) are testament to the resilience of the early church. Once the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its state religion and the capital moved from Rome to Constantinople in 324AD, Turkey became the bedrock of the still evolving political and theological systems that would shape the mind of Europe for the next thousand years. It was in Nicaea and Chalcedon that the doctrines of Christian orthodoxy were thrashed, much to the disgust of the Middle Eastern churches, whose theology later evolved into modern Islam. During this time the medieval Catholic Church emerged as a religious shadow of the Byzantine political system. They built the magnificent Hagia Sophia in 537AD, which remained the largest cathedral in the world for the next thousand years.
With the final conquest of the region in 1453AD, the number of believers declined from a majority to a minority of the population. However, the coming of the 20th Century history still found over 25% of the population adhering to the Christian faith, with the percentage much higher in Istanbul and the west of the country. World War One was a disaster for Christians in Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Iran as they were seen as agents of the Western powers. It was the of full scale genocide and expulsion of Christians in the decades after that war that has sadly led Turkey to its current level of just 0.2% Christian. The history of Byzantine/Muslim conflict, the pain of the crusades, Western colonialism and the genocide of the 20th Century have combined to create a sense in Turkey that to become a Christian is to betray your country, to become a traitor. The media reinforce this perception on a daily basis.
Evangelical missions began here in 1821, but quickly switched to non-Muslims who were more receptive. Today the church is growing again, but from such a tiny base that it will remain totally insignificant for centuries unless there is a major move of the Holy Spirit. In 2010 there were just 8,000 known evangelical believers for a population of 75 million, notwithstanding local government newspaper reports of 35,000 Muslim Turks converting to Christianity in 2008 and more recent reports of many young people abandoning Islam. Having said that, in recent times tens of thousands of Iranian and Afghan refugees have also used the “relative” freedoms of Turkey to convert to Christianity. Something has definitely changed in the spirit realm and the old stale Orthodox expressions of Christianity that were stuck in a cultural ghetto for a millennia are giving way to a fresh vibrant form of living Christianity: New wine for a new era of church growth, as evidenced by the remarkable ministry of Isik Abla, a former radical Turkish Muslim who now spreads the Good News to 6 million active facebook followers throughout the Middle East from the United States.
49. THE CHURCH IN TURKMENISTAN: ALMOST NON-EXISTANT!
History: Turkmenistan is a landlocked country to the north of Afghanistan and Iran. Its history is embedded in the story of the Silk Road and the vagaries of surrounding empires to the north, south, east and west! Its fabled oasis city of Merv was first inhabited around 3,000BC and was once one of the greatest cities in the world. Great empires such as the Parthians, the Achaemenid Empire, the Medians, Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Russians and Arabs have all had their day in this region, either passing through or occupying. Spiritually it has seen Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Greek mythology, Nestorian Christianity, shamanism and Islam pass though as well.
With the coming of the Christian era, the east-west oriented mountains of southern Turkmenistan were used to spread the Gospel along the Silk Road from the Middle East to Central Asia and eventually China. Little remains of that legacy as it was almost wiped out by Genghis Kahn and then completely annihilated by Tamerlane two centuries later. It was also from this region that one tribe of the great Turkic Seljuk Empire was pushed by the Mongols into the Middle East, and eventually Turkey. Today two countries are named after this people group and 150 million people speak Turkic languages.
It is from the era of Tamerlane till the present day that we see the complete collapse of Christianity in Turkmenistan, both culturally and demographically. It was not until 1881 that Turkmenistan again saw the presence of people from a “Christian” country, in this case it was the Russians. This in turn led to the rise of Communist atheism in Turkmenistan, which eventually led to Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991.
Today: After Communism fell, and until 2006, the country was run by an absolute dictator who created a bizarre personality cult to the extent that his own book of homespun religion and wisdom was required reading for all students and was even placed alongside the Qur’an in all mosques! His successor has sadly carried on in the same mould. As a result of their rule the country has developed its vast gas and oil reserves and yet still has a quarter of its people living in abject poverty. Most of the new wealth has been wasted on egotistical building projects in the capital and at the strange new tourist resort city of Avaza on the Caspian Sea. If you want to compare Turkmenistan to another country in the way it is governed, sadly the closest comparison would be North Korea.
The country is officially 90% Sunni Muslim but Islam is not the state religion. Most Muslims are very nominal and many still practice elements of pre-Islamic shamanism and Animism. Turkmen are great believers in trinkets and amulets which are widely sold to ward off evil spirits, to summon good spirits and protect their owners from various troubles and misfortunes. This deep engagement with the demonic suggests Turkmenistan is a Muslim country on the surface only.
True Christianity: Now, about that city of Merv, the “Queen of Cities”. Nestorian Christianity came to this region as part of the Persian Empire in the 2nd century. It spread far and wide, such that by 420AD there were bishops in Merv, and by 544AD it was a Metropolitan (a centre for overseeing a cluster of bishops). From the 6th to the 13th centuries it was one of the world’s leading cities and a source of great spiritual and cultural life for the Nestorian faith. In fact, the highly respected Christian scholars of Merv had access to the ancient Greek manuscripts well before any Europeans, and they were a significant source of intellect for the golden age of Islamic learning. It was this much-needed academic skill set that kept the Christians, who were still the majority in this region, on good terms with their Seljuk Muslim masters.
During this era many hundreds of thousands of surrounding Turkic people were also nominally brought into the Christian faith by the conversion of the king of the Keriat Turks on the shores of Lake Baikal. (Sadly most of the Christian history of Central Asia has either been forgotten or deliberately left out of most online sources. It was only when I read through the The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins that I found all the information in this week’s blog.)
In February 1221AD Genghis Kahn devastated Merv and its surrounding civilisation in what some describe as one of the largest massacres in history. Only heaven knows the number of faithful that died but historians say that up to a million were slaughtered in just a few days. From then on, and particularly after Tamerlane, Merv became a minor Muslim city in a staunchly Muslim region. Little is known of any surviving Christians in Turkmenistan after these events. With the arrival of the Russians came many European immigrants who brought their Orthodox beliefs, of which some 70,000, or 1.5% of the population remain.
Ethnic Turkmen believers were virtually non-existent until the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a brief few years, the doors were open for the Gospel and then they shut again. Today there are around 1,000 known believers out of 6 million Turkmen. Amazingly their numbers are slowly growing in the midst of severe persecution from the local culture, Islamic religion and the entire apparatus of the state. Some converts are even locked up by their families for long periods of time, beaten and may eventually be expelled from their communities. Any organised expression of the Christian faith outside the Orthodox Church is never tolerated. Hence any growth happens in the underground church and is nearly impossible to measure. Any expatriate Christians found doing any evangelism in the country are also expelled. Think North Korea. Think major demonic stronghold. Think Prince of the power of Persia (Daniel 10:13).
The only potentially bright spot in this scenario is that there are some 2 million Turkmens in Iran, where a robust evangelical church is growing rapidly. It is hoped that many will come to faith and take that faith back home as there are currently more Jehovah’s witnesses in Turkmenistan that followers of Christ, the only country in the world with that unfortunate distinction.
50. THE CHURCH IN THE UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: A THRIVING CHURCH!
History: The United Arab Emirates (the UAE) is a small 77,000 square kilometre confederation of seven kingdoms on the north-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula that currently punches above its weight on the global scene. Settlement here is as old as humanity and the locals were known to have traded with the Indus Valley civilisation and the Sumerians some 3,000 years before Christ. Most of the great Middle Eastern Empires claimed the Persian Gulf cities and coastline as their own at some time in history. The discovery of copper in the mountains close to the present day UAE no doubt contributed to the regions importance. The mighty Persians have long dominated this region and it was they who controlled the Emirates coast around the time of Christ.
Christianity is said to have reached the shores of the Persian Gulf around 300AD, However, with Thomas having visited Pakistan and lived in India before 100AD, I believe it arrived much earlier as Christianity was already widespread among the Arabs of this region by that time and most were Nestorians, using the Syriac language for ecclesiastical purposes. The Nabataeans and Ghassanids and Lakhmids, Arab client states of the Byzantine and Persian Empires were largely Christian in the lead up to the arrival of the Arab Empire.
During this era Oman and the UAE comprised the Nestorian diocese known as Beth Mazunaye. Christianity continued to thrive in the region for many centuries after the rise of the Arab Empire and that empire’s steady metamorphosis into the Islamic religion. In fact the Arabs were welcomed here by the Christians as liberators from Zoroastrian persecution. Christian sites have been discovered all around the Persian Gulf dating from that time. Christian archaeological sites from late antiquity are being excavated at Failaka in Kuwait, Kharg in Iran, Akkas in Kuwait, Jubail on the Arabian coast, and at the nearby settlements of Thaj, Al-Hinnah and Jabal Berri, and of course at Sir Bani Yas in the UAE.
The island of Sir Bani Yas, just 150km east of Abu Dhabi, is the location of the only pre-Islamic Christian site to be found so far in the UAE. The 7th-century church was used by Nestorian Christians until at least 750AD. Sadly, Arab Christianity eventually died out on the eastern side of Arabia under persecution from Islam, but large numbers of this ancient church still thrive today in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel, numbering in the millions.
In time the Ottomans took control of the area today known as the UAE and they in turn eventually ceded power to the Europeans; beginning with the Portuguese and ending with the British. The British were there to subdue the many local pirates in order to protect their lucrative Indian trade route. In time the British agreed to protect the local chiefs in return for exclusive use of their ports and harbours. By 1922 this included an agreement from the British not to engage any foreign oil corporations without the consent of the local leaders. Largely because of oil, by the 1960’s the region was ready for independence, which came in 1971. Bahrain and Qatar opted for full independence.
Today: The UAE has transformed itself in recent decades from an economic backwater to a global middle power by the savvy management skills of its autocratic rulers. This transformation is exemplified by the glittering wealth, mega construction projects and towering skyscrapers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The average income of the locals is now higher than that of the USA, however the millions of south Asian manual workers who also live there are often severely disappointed with their economic conditions.
Each Emirate is governed by a ruler and together they jointly form the Federal Supreme Council. One of the rulers serves as the President of the United Arab Emirates. In 2017, the UAE’s population was 9.4 million, of which 1.4 million are Emirati citizens and 7.8 million are expatriates! Political freedoms are slowly emerging and religious rights of assembly are being respected and indeed encouraged by the rulers as a means of keeping social harmony among the vast majority of expatriate workers.
True Christianity: According to statistics, 13% of the population is Christian and the religious freedoms enjoyed by all faiths is notable for this region of the world. The Emirates rely on foreigners for the wealth they enjoy, so they have had to open up their way of life to more international ways of thinking, and foreign religious beliefs. The Emirati ruling families have even donated land and tax free status for the construction of some church and temple compounds. These centres have become the centre of the Christian and ethnic communities they represent. It remains to be seen if these increased levels of tolerance are going to extend into the foreseeable future, of will become subject to the Islamic extremism so prevalent in next-door Saudi Arabia.
Although evangelism is illegal, there are increasing numbers of Arab Muslims becoming interested in our faith. If caught evangelising there are still severe punishments, however, discreet conversations are often appreciated and domestic labourers are particularly well placed to speak into their employers families. The real harvest though has been among the low-paid labourers among the expatriate communities. There are now thriving and growing evangelical communities among most of these ethnic groups and some church leaders have been overwhelmed with the size of the harvest.
51. THE CHURCH IN UZBEKISTAN: REBORN IN A BAPTISM OF FIRE
History: What is now Uzbekistan was in ancient times part of the Iranian-speaking region of Transoxiana. The first recorded settlers were Iranian nomads, known as Scythians, who founded the Indo-Iranian kingdoms of Khwarezm, Bactria, Sogdia, Fergana and Margiana in the millennium before Christ. After a brief period of Macedonian Greek rule, the region was again claimed by the Iranians via the Parthian Empire and later by the Sasanian Persian Empire. During this period, famous Silk Road cities such as Samarkand, and Bukhara began to grow rich from trade with China. Uzbekistan thus played a crucial role in the world’s first great wave of globalisation.
The Gospel therefore arrived here easily and early, following the same trade routes taken by the Jews who had already set up thriving communities all along the Silk Road (in fact in 1970 there were still some 100,000 Jews living in Uzbekistan. Sadly, half have now left, most going to Israel).
During the Middle Ages all the Central Asian people, including the original Indo-Iranians Iranians, were decimated by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century. This allowed the area became increasingly dominated by south-eastward migrating Turkic peoples from Siberia who now comprise 90% of the population. The blood-thirsty Turkic tyrant Timur, who finished wiping out Christianity from Central Asia, established his 14th century capital in the famous Uzbek Silk Road city of Samarkand. Eventually Uzbekistan was incorporated into the Russian Empire during the 19th Century, with Tashkent (which my brother says has a surprisingly European feel to it as it was completely rebuilt by the Soviets after a massive earthquake in 1966) becoming the political centre of Russian Turkestan. In 1924 the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic was created and following the breakup of the Soviet Union it declared independence as the Republic of Uzbekistan on 31 August 1991.
Today: Although quite poor, with some 32 million people, Uzbekistan has nearly half of all the ex-Soviet Stan citizens. It is therefore a vital key in any struggle to control the whole region. Uzbekistan has never really let go of its Soviet political system and rampant suppression of any ideology, religious or secular, that it cannot ruthlessly control. A major battle now rages between the hard line ex-soviet leadership and radical Islamists who are deeply unhappy with their poverty and exclusion from power. The government appoints all imams and controls the number and location of mosques. Thousands of devout Muslims, which are a small minority in this country, have were arrested under the rule of the former dictator. Hundreds of radicals have been shot. Since his death in 2016 there has been some relaxation of this oppression.
This is a very spiritually dark nation, firmly under the control of demonic spirits. As for Turkmenistan, shamanism is the dominant underlying religion. Uzbeks are great believers in trinkets and amulets which are widely sold to ward off evil spirits and the Evil Eye, to summon good spirits and good luck, to do fortune telling and to protect their owners from various troubles and misfortunes. Most Shamans are women, dress in white, operate from home and incorporate various aspects of Islam into their practice to maintain legitimacy. Shrines to saints and holy men are very common and venerated. The Uzbeks even claim to possess the tomb of Daniel to which international pilgrims of all faiths come. This is a leftover of the original Shaman engagement with spirits. The old Zoroastrian fascination with fire is also preserved in Uzbek shamanism and the more spiritually engaged side of Islam, Sufism, is well regarded here.
This deep engagement with the demonic suggests Turkmenistan is a Muslim country on the surface only. This is exemplified by the large scale adherence “saints”, men who are deeply shamanistic and therefore more spiritual than mere mortals.
True Christianity: Being on the Silk Road, the Gospel reached Uzbekistan as early as 200AD. By 500AD some 25% of this region were professing Christians. This used to be OUR backyard! Today there are just 200,000 Christians out of a population of 32 million. Some 100,000 of them are Russian Orthodox, down from 500,000 in the 1980’s but still officially recognised by the government. Then there are about another 60,000 Russian and Korean background Protestants who came to faith both before and after independence. The Koreans were deported here by Stalin during World War II and are being actively reached by missionaries from South Korea. These two groups currently enjoy the right to evangelise within their own ethnic groups. Then there are also around 20,000 Uzbek evangelical believers who mostly live in Tashkent, and their numbers are growing.
David Garrison, when researching for his seminal book, A Wind In The House of Islam, visited a thriving underground discipleship network in the famously fertile Fergana Valley in the far east of Uzbekistan. He says they felt liberated from the traditional ways of Christian thinking when he told them that real, New Testament church communities did not need buildings. There are also several thousand Kazakh believers to the south of what remains of the Aral Sea.
Sadly all evangelical Christians are basically considered enemies of the state and are monitored, beaten and harassed. Until 2016 believers were being charged with the crime of owning a Bible, having a Christian song on their phone or accessing Christian websites. Until 2019 not a single religious activity beyond state-run and state-controlled institutions is allowed. Miraculously this is now changing for the better. The remarkable Uzbek church has been growing by some 4% a year, an amazing figure given the field day Satan is having in this country. However, this growth is seen as a great threat to the political elite. Persecution of Christians is therefore on the rise with
The deep-seated Folk-Islamic culture in Uzbekistan means believers from Muslim backgrounds bear the brunt of the persecution. They experience pressure and occasionally physical violence from their families and communities to force them to return to their former faith. Despite all this, even the number of Uzbek believers is growing, even though it is nigh impossible for the Korean or Russian believers to reach them. Some of the Uzbek Christians have even developed a vision to reach out to the Uzbek people in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.
52. THE CHURCH IN YEMEN: ONCE THRIVING, NOW SUFFERING
History: Yemen is a mountainous country clinging to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemeni’s are Arabs through and through. Their separation from neighbouring states is due to both its mountains and British colonisation, which is also responsible to some extent for their current civil war.
Yemen’s history is deep, being so close to the crucial events of ancient history. Tradition says was first settled after the flood by Shem, Noah’s son. Yemen was also the home of the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon (1 Kings 10). She was the leader of the Sabaean Empire, an Arab kingdom that was established some 3,000 years ago and which at one time also controlled parts of the Horn of Africa. Her kingdom was quite sophisticated, with the capital, Ma’rib being irrigated by one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world, the Ma’rib dam. Even before the Sabaeans had migrated south from Palestine around 1200BC they were looting from our friend Job (Job 1:14-15).
Yemen’s significance in New Testament times was as the source of the fabled spices frankincense and myrrh trade that were crucial to the temple worship of Roman temples and many ancient medicinal practices. This is why the Romans called Yemen Arabia Felix (happy Arabia). These medicinal plants only grew in the desert edge of the mountains of Yemen. Their products were more precious than gold, which is why these unique Yemeni substances were presented to Jesus at his birth (Matthew 2:11). It was this 3,000 tonne a year ancient spice trade that also led to the rise of the Nabataean kingdom of Petra fame as the crucial middle men in this lucrative trade, and to their eventual conquest by the Romans in 106AD.
Side Note: Without Yemen’s mountains there would be no spice trade, and no Nabataean kingdom. There would also be NO significant Arab culture and history with which Islam could create its origin myth. Their origin myth says Mecca was Muhammad’s home town and a significant trading city at the end of the 6th Century when he was born. It says he used to go on inland trade expeditions north to Judea and Jordan. However, Mecca is missing from all maps until after 900AD. It is not mentioned on any Arabian trade route from the 7th Century, It is missing from all non-Muslim 7th Century records, and it is also missing from all 7th Century lists of Arab pagan pilgrimage sites. In addition, because of cost and new technologies, the trade of all Yemeni goods had become sea-born some five centuries earlier so an inland trade city located where Mecca now stands made no economic sense at all. Finally, so much of what is described as Meccan culture, custom and language is actually Nabataean culture custom and language. The rest of Arabia is desert and not capable of sustaining significant civilisation. The Islamic origin myth is simply an echo of an earlier era.
In the centuries after Christ, Yemen’s lucrative agricultural mountains fell under the influence of the Jewish Himyarite kingdom as they fanned out after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. It was they, not divine revelation from Allah to Muhammad, who taught the pagan Arabs about the one true God. From this time Christianity also became a major influence in the region. By the 5th Century Yemen was home to hundreds of synagogues and Nestorian church buildings, as was the whole Arabian Peninsula. Najran and Zafar were two notable Yemeni Christian cities of this era in what was a small Christian kingdom set up after the Coptic Ethiopian Aksumite’s invaded Yemen to put a stop to Jewish persecution of Christians in the 6th Century. Sadly, this was a era when people of any defeated opposing faith had to convert via the sword or face the consequences, a practice that would be emulated later by Muslims.
After the Arab Empire took hold of the Peninsula in the middle of the 7th Century, the Yemeni Christian and Jewish faiths were slowly forced deep into the mountains. Islam eventually took control of all religious, social and political life in the country such that today it is one of only 11 Muslim countries that adheres to Sharia law.
From 1538 to 1911 the Ottomans tried to take control of Yemen, only to fail repeatedly because of the Afghan-like terrain. During this time the Yemenis hit back by taking control of Mecca at least once. Also during this time Yemen was the world’s chief coffee producing country which was centred on the city of Mocha! (Just thought you coffee drinkers might like that bit of trivia). With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 the mountainous north-west of Yemen declared independence and remained so until 1970 when an five year Egypt-inspired rebellion finally toppled the kingdom.
Down on the south coast Yemen’s geo-strategic location and the opening of the Suez Canal eventually led to the arrival of the British. They first set up port in Aden on the south coast in 1839 to supply their steam ships on their way to India and back. To secure the peace in this violent region the British concluded protection and friendship treaties with the nine tribes surrounding Aden. The entire south-eastern coast of Yemen eventually became a British Protectorate. During World War Two Aden was the second busiest port in the world.
Independence for the south came in 1967 and it was the only Marxist regime ever to have existed in the Arab world. In 1990 the two nations agreed to unite. In 1994 they split in a civil war. This pattern is again repeating in the current civil war.
Today: It is best not to think of Yemen as a single nation but a patchwork of 1,700 clans and tribes where every man carries a dagger and disputes are settled with violence. Codes of shame and honour within a person’s tribe and religion control all social interactions. This helps explain why Yemen is currently hopelessly locked in a devastating civil war that pitches the north-western Shia Houthi “rebels” against the southern coastal Sunni population. This is now a global proxy war with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the USA opposing Iran and its support for their fellow Shia. The Houthi’s have responded to four years of relentless aerial attacks by the Saudi’s and massive starvation with very clever targeted drone attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure. On the 26th of July 2019, they even sent a drone missile into the Abu Dhabi international airport, an incident which was never made public (and I flew through that same airport two months later!). I predict there will be a swift de-escalation of this war if these clever attacks continue.
Yemen today is a also nation of depressing superlatives and here are a few: It has the highest level of gun ownership in the world at 3-4 per person, and is therefore one of the most violent countries on the planet. Its capital, Sana’a, is the world’s fastest growing capital city, at over 7%. Yemen is home to the world’s first sky scrapers such as the 11 floor, 400 year old towers at Shibam Hadramawt. Indeed Yemen is home to some of the most amazing village architecture on the planet! It has one of the world’s highest birth rates combined with one of the world’s lowest levels of literacy for women at 30%. It has had four civil wars in four decades. Over 40% of the economy devoted to the production of a drug (khat) and 80% of adults are hooked on it. It is the poorest country in the Arab world. One third of the population is starving and 80% of the country faces food shortages. It is the worst place on earth to be a child and will be one of the most affected by climate change-induced water shortages. Militarily, the Houthi’s were the first in the world to extensively use drones for military purposes.
True Christianity: At the end of the 19th Century, the first modern Western missionary arrived in Yemen. In the following years, a medical ministry was set up which also opened the way for communicating the Gospel. However, nestled away in isolated mountain villages remnants of the original church have always remained inside Yemen, small communities of inward-looking Orthodox believers.
Today there are only around 4,000 known Yemeni evangelicals inside a population of over 30 million. Surprisingly given the strict social structure, civil war and intense persecution, their numbers are growing. This is in part because the civil war saw the exit of most foreign Christians and organisations, and the breakdown of society. Locals believers have even stepped up and taken ownership of their future. Their meetings are always underground and they face great dangers. In addition, there are around 15,000 non-Yemeni believers in the country, mainly refugees from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Sadly, treatment of converts to Christianity in Somalia is so severe that converts often flee to Yemen’s “relative” anonymity and safety.