Recently, the US gave visas to Sunni, Shia and Yazidi delegates to advocate for persecuted Muslims and Yazidis but refused a visa to the only Christian delegate Sister Diana, a leading Iraqi Christian. Yet she had been granted a visa in 2012.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, responded: “I hope that as it gets attention Secretary Kerry will reverse it. If he doesn’t, Congress has to investigate, and the person who made this decision ought to be fired.”

Eventually Sister Diana was given a visa.

In 2014 when the US Institute for Peace brought together the governors of Nigeria’s for a conference in the U.S., the State Department blocked the visa of the region’s only Christian governor, Jonah David Jang.

Yet, more Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East than ever and some people point out that the increase in persecution is not just because of ISIS but also as a result of the US-UK invasion of Iraq. This puts a solemn responsibility on the US (and the UK).

I am definitely not anti-Muslim but it is a cause of concern when Christians, whether in the US or the UK, seem to have to play second fiddle to Muslims. Persecuted Christians and Muslims should be treated equally, i.e. well.

I said recently that, although I have serious problems with Islamic belief, I will publish significant positive news about Muslims when it arises. It is part of loving our Muslim neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards Muslims. The same is true with respect to homosexuals. Although I accept the Bible teaching on homosexual practice, I will publish significant positive news about homosexuals when it arises. It is part of loving our homosexual neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards homosexuals. With that in mind, I want to share the following news item.

Jesse Bartholomew, a homosexual pastry chef, wrote on Facebook: “I cannot tell you how disgusted I am with my fellow gay and lesbian community that they would stoop so low to force someone to bake a cake for them who simply doesn’t agree with them. They don’t have to bake a cake for you. You are forcing someone. You are being a Nazi and forcing someone to bake a wedding cake for you when there are hundreds of other gay and lesbians that would gladly have your business. Shame on you.”

The “Arab Spring”

The so-called Arab Spring was a remarkable series of events including the following:

December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire because the authorities had confiscated his produce. This was the culmination of many years of such maltreatment and it sparked protests in Tunisia and elsewhere, including Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Oman, Syria and Yemen.

January 2011 The Tunisian President fled to Saudi Arabia. A few days later protests in Egypt forced the Egyptian President to resign.

March 2011 Protests against President Assad began in Syria leading to a prolonged war with many atrocities.

October 2011 Lybian President Gaddafi was killed after a 9-month conflict.

February 2012 The President of Yemen resigned after protests.

June 2012 Mohammed Morsi of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected President of Egypt.

July 2013 Millions of Egyptians demonstrated against Morsi forcing his resignation.

May 2014 Former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was elected President of Egypt

Many people saw all this as a positive revolution which would establish democracy in the Middle East. But it was not to be. Instead, there were many sinister developments. One early example happened in August 2013 when Muslims set fire to over 70 Christian churches in Egypt. Since then extreme Islamists have come to the fore, especially in Iraq, Syria and Lybia. The most prominent is, of course, the so-called Islamic State (Isis). The removal of dictators has opened the way to far more extreme leadership taking over. This had happened much earlier when the Shah of Persia (Iran) was overthrown in 1979 and replaced by hard-line Islamists. On June 29th 2014 Isis announced that it had re-established the Islamic Caliphate (global Islamic state) led by the Caliph Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. One Iraqi politician said that the Arab Spring had become an Islamic Spring.

International chaos in the Middle East

Isis seems to be aiming at weakening Arab states and their armies so that it will be able to gain more influence and make it easier to ‘liberate’ the Palestinians from Israeli control. Turkey, Iran and Israel are the only strong states in the Middle East.

Syria and Iraq

Syria and Iraq are, of course, deeply divided and largely ungovernable. They are well on the way to becoming failed states. Isis (which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is now in control of more than half of Syria and controls all the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Their intermediate aim is a Middle East Islamic state which includes the territories of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel. Syria is crucially important for Isis because they see it as the heart of the Islamic State on the border of Palestine. They see it as the road to Jerusalem. Isis is known to have some chemical weapons but there is fear that they will gain more from Syrian sources. Israel is afraid that Hezbollah, the Islamist group based in Lebanon, also could get hold of Syrian chemical weapons and smuggle them into Lebanon. Some experts are afraid that people could be exposed to biological weapons such as anthrax, plague, and cholera which could cause pandemics that are very difficult to control.

Iraq is divided between a Shia Muslim majority and a more traditional Sunni minority. But Isis (which is Sunni extremist) also holds large areas of the country and at times the Iraqi army has shown it is not up to withstanding it.

Egypt

Egypt initially accepted 300,000 Syrian refugees but since Morsi was deposed has turned against them. President Sisi is authoritarian and there have been unfair trials and an increasing number of executions. Morsi has been sentenced to death and the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed.

Militant Islamists have mounted attacks particularly in North Sinai. Hundreds of police and soldiers have been killed. One terrorist group called Sinai Province has links with Isis.

Egypt receives financial support from the Saudis and the Emirates. It is regarded as supporting Israel against Hamas in Gaza which is seen as a terrorist group.

Iran

Iran is an oppressive regime which restricts human rights. It is strongly opposed by the Saudis and the Gulf States. It co-operates with Hezbollah in Lebanon to support President Assad of Syria. The US is, of course, seeking to ensure that Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons. President Obama stated in April 2015 that Iran will accept “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear programme in history. If Iran cheats, the world will know it. This deal is not based on trust. It’s based on unprecedented verification.” However Israel is very suspicious of the agreement and believes Iran will not keep to it. Clearly the Saudis share this suspicion.

Jordan

Jordan has received 600,000 Syrian refugees. This, together with the surrounding chaos in Iraq and Syria is creating a serious crisis in Jordan and fears that the conflict could spill over into its territory.

Kuwait

Kuwait is an oppressive regime which curtails freedom of speech. David Cohen, Deputy Director of the CIA, once described Kuwait as the “epicentre of fundraising for terrorist groups in Syria” However Kuwait is regarded as an important ally by the West.

Lebanon

Lebanon has suffered by being caught up in battles between countries such as Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia and it fears that the Syrian conflict could spill over into its territory. Fears are also raised by the strong connections between Iran and Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon and is regarded by many as a terrorist group.

It is a country where citizenship is only available to members of one of 18 approved religious groups. Power is shared out between these groups and, especially in the context of a weak state, this leads to an acceptance of compromise.

Lebanon has one million Syrian refugees, the equivalent of one fifth of the Lebanese population. The presence of the pro-Assad Shia group Hezbollah in the country has caused violent reactions from the Sunni community

Libya

Since 2014 there has been civil war in Libya. Central government has collapsed and the numerous militias are out of control. The country is moving towards being a failed state. Libya is very dangerous and journalists tend not to go there. Isis has moved into territory which is not controlled by the state and set up training centres for extremists. It was from there that the recent massacre in Tunisia was mounted.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is dominated by Wahhabism, a very strict version of Sunni Islam. It is repressive and carries out severe punishments, including many beheadings. No political parties are allowed. The Saudis, assisted by Qatar, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates have funded Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. However Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world’s oil supplies so western governments want to maintain good relationships with the country despite its bad human rights record. Hence Saudi Arabia has recently hosted a conference on Human Rights run by the UN Human Rights Council. The country is also the British arms industry’s largest customer.

Although the Saudis have funded Islamic fundamentalists around the region, it has now rebounded on them as extremist groups are threatening the Saudi leadership. They are also very threatened by the extensive influence of Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. They have made it clear that if the US is not successful in preventing Iran developing nuclear weapons they will acquire them too. It is thought that the Saudis funded 60% of the development of the Pakistan nuclear weapons on the basis that they would be allowed to obtain some of those weapons if necessary. Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal has said: “Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”

Tunisia

Many Tunisians have joined Isis to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Turkey

Anxieties in Turkey about growing Islamisation and the authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister led to riots and in 2015 Erdogan did not do too well in the election.

Turkey is very concerned to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state by both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. They are sending troops to fight against the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish Kurds live in SE Turkey.

Turkey has accepted 1.8 million Syrian refugees.

Yemen

There has been an undeclared civil war in Yemen for some time. Iranian-backed rebels gained control of government institutions. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is close, not least because about half the Saudi army is of Kuwaiti origin. The Saudis are afraid of the Iranian influence in Yemen and they are also afraid that Kuwait will become a failed state controlled by terrorists. So in 2015 a Sunni Muslim coalition of nine Arab countries plus Pakistan invaded Kuwait.

Summary

Much of the conflict in the Middle East is between the more traditional Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims. They are at war with each other in Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. Isis is an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are torn by war. They are becoming failed states. Egypt is facing serious division. Saudi Arabia is an oppressive, anti-Christian regime. Jordan and Lebanon feel threatened and Turkey intends to prevent the Kurds establishing a state by violence if necessary.

In March 2015 a joint Arab military force was set up to face the unstable situation in the Middle East. The 22 states involved in the Arab League are to combine forces.

Many refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Other refugees are crossing the Mediterranean to find safety in Europe – causing problems within the EU.

The effects on Christians

One thing that complicates the position of Christians in Muslim countries is military action by western nations which are seen as Christian nations. Consequently, Muslim countries persecute Christians. The Arab Spring and the growth of Isis has led to much greater oppression of Christians in the Middle East.

In Egypt, where there is a long-established Christian community, the removal of President Morsi in 2013 led to the worst persecution of Christians in 1400 years. It was against Coptic Christians and 65 churches, Christian bookshops, schools and convents were burned down, looted or destroyed. There has been some similar persecution since then.

In recent years in Syria over 450,000 Christians have fled and hundreds of thousands are in hiding. Christians and Christian leaders have been abducted, ransomed or executed.

Since the 2003 Gulf War over a million Christians have fled from Iraq. In 2014 when Isis captured Mosul and much of the traditional Christian area around Nineveh 200,000 Christians fled to Kurdistan.

The chaos in Libya has meant that persecution has increased, with Christians being afraid to meet together. The only religious gatherings allowed are Islamic. Isis has executed Christians.

Saudi Arabia officially bans churches and Christian meetings, even amongst ex-pats. Sometimes the authorities take oppressive action to enforce this ban against Christians meeting in homes. Bibles are prohibited. Converts from Islam to Christianity face the death penalty. Nevertheless for economic and political reasons the Saudis are treated as respected allies by western countries.

The Israeli perspective

I write as a friend of Israel but I am a genuine friend who, unlike some Zionist Christians, faces up to her failings as well as defending her when appropriate. She is not treating the Palestinians justly and currently she is becoming increasingly isolated in the world through the unwise leadership of her present government.

However, some of the criticism of Israel is unjust and there is some which is based on thinly veiled anti-Semitism. In fact, some Christians have decided that Israel is in the wrong and don’t wished to be confused by the facts. There is a growing movement to boycott Israeli goods but, as Israel points out, there is no such boycott of other countries deemed to be guilty of injustice – Saudi Arabia, for example. It is essential that we seek to look at the world through Israeli eyes, as well as through Palestinian eyes.

Israel is still affected by centuries of persecution and the trauma of the Holocaust. She also knows that a large number of people dispute her legitimacy and would like to see her destroyed. Against that background she looks at the chaos in the Middle East around her – the extreme Islamism, the wars, the advance of Isis (which is now speaking of taking over from Hamas and ‘liberating’ Palestine), the threat of Iran, which wants Israel destroyed, gaining nuclear weapons after all (which is perceived as possible by the Israelis and others) and the danger the Saudis would follow suit. Yes, Israel should provide justice for the Palestinians but she also needs to protect herself. After all, Isis is getting too close for comfort.

It is all very well for the Christian armchair critics in the West to be calling for justice for the Palestinians. But they must also take the fears of the Israelis seriously. Yes, of course, sometimes politicians over-emphasise threats for political reasons but the fact is that Israel is seriously threatened – and things will get worse.

We need to pray for the countries of the Middle East, for Israel and for Christians in that region facing grave difficulties, persecution and violent death. We should also recognise that the growing persecution of Christians and the increasing threats to Israel are in harmony with the New Testament’s teaching on the End Times.

A US group led by a church minister is fighting against religious freedom laws which protect religious people and organisations from being forced to accept homosexual marriage. If we think present protection in law for Christians who follow the Bible’s teaching on such matters will last long-term we should take careful note. It won’t. Pray against this trend. See http://christiannews.net/2015/07/08/group-launches-national-effort-to-abolish-religious-freedom-laws-protecting-people-of-faith/

A positive way of combatting the ‘Islamic State.’ It is reported that members of Boko Haram (which is affiliated to the ‘Islamic State’) are being won to faith is Christ. This shows the power of the Gospel. Obviously, they and their families are in grave danger from the Islamists. The message is: You personally can combat ‘Islamic State’ – pray for their conversion to Christ. See http://www.christiantoday.com/article/inspired.by.christian.missionaries.boko.haram.members.convert.to.christianity/58329.htm

So the government wants to relax the Sunday trading laws. Quite apart from Christian considerations there are good secular arguments for not doing so – e.g. shopworkers can have time with their families. But, no, extending Sunday trading hours would “generate more than £200m a year in extra income in the capital alone.” So, Mammon wins again. The only slight problem is that we don’t ultimately account to the god Mammon but to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. How will we explain to him that we had little or no time for him?

I have said before that, whereas there is a serious decline in many churches, especially in Europe, this is not the whole picture. Overall the church is growing, as are some European churches. 700 mostly black Pentecostal churches began between 2005 and 2012. Many of them are in London, for example some 240 in Southwark. Also Roman Catholic numbers have been boosted by immigrants from Poland and Orthodox from Romania. Independent and New Churches are also growing.

However we must take the decline seriously.

The end of British Christianity?

“2067 – the end of British Christianity” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph on June 13th 2015. Damian Thompson wrote that between 2001 and 2011 the number of Christians born in Britain fell by 5.3 million — about 10,000 a week. He added that, at this rate, Christianity amongst those born in Britain will finish in 2067. Peter Brierley discovered that in 2013 there were 5.4 million church members in the UK, 10.3 per cent of the adult population over the age of 15, 0.3 million less than in 2008. A recent British Social Attitudes survey showed that British people claiming religious affiliation had declined from 68.6% in 1983 to 52.3% in 2012 and regular attendance at church had declined from 21.3% to 17% in the same period.

Thompson pointed out that the Church of England is declining faster and will disappear by 2033. 40% of the population were Anglican in 1983, 29% in 2004 and 17% in 2014. That is a loss of 1.7 million people in the last two years. British Catholics fell from 10% in 1983 to 8% in 2014 and the Church of Scotland has declined from 36% of Scots in 2001 to 18% in 2014. The Methodist Conference recorded a loss of 96,233 members between 2003 and 2013.

One of the reasons for the decline is that unlike in the past, people who don’t attend church no longer feel the need to be identified with the Church of England. Also some people may just regard themselves as Christian rather than as belonging to a particular denomination. However although Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University, said the poll figures “should be treated with some cau¬tion, she added: “Where all the polling agrees is in finding that An¬¬glican affiliation has declined dramatically since the 1980s, and continues to do so.” Of course, there are many churches which are exceptions, but the overall pattern is of decline.

Distrust of the church

A 2014 survey discovered that 55% of the British public distrusts the church as opposed to 37% who trust it. In fact the church was the 11th most distrusted institution, doing worse than supermarkets, TV and radio stations, the BBC, Police, Royal Mail, charities, the royal family, schools, small businesses, the NHS, scouts and guides and the armed forces.

Sexual abuse

Of course, one of the highly publicised factors contributing to this distrust is sexual abuse within the church. In May 2015 the Methodist Church made an unreserved apology for 1,885 cases of physical and sexual abuse of children since the 1950s. Ministers or lay employees were involved in a quarter of them. Other churches have reported cases of child abuse. In 2014 Pope Francis revealed that Vatican data suggested one in 50 Catholic priests is or was a paedophile. It was also revealed that in 2011-12 Pope Benedict defrocked 400 priests for child molesting. Where is the fear of God in such people?

Unbelieving clergy

Trust in the church is hardly increased by the recent report that one in 50 of the Church of England clergy don’t believe in God. It is not clear how many of these clergy are functioning in the church but if they are they should immediately resign and stop causing harm to the church’s credibility. If they are secret unbelievers who simply responded to the survey then they should resign because they cannot take anyone spiritually further than they have gone themselves.

Christian compromise and spiritual failure

Compromising the Gospel

A Muslim at the Church of England General Synod in February 2015 began his address with words in Arabic which mean “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is basically a denial of the Trinity. In a service commemorating the First World War Muhammad was referred to as “Muhammed Mustafa” which means “the Chosen One.” But Christians do not believe Muhammad was chosen by God or that his message was from God. A prayer service was led by Muslims in St John’s Church, Waterloo and Christian imagery in the church was covered up. (We can be grateful though that the Bishop of Southwark subsequently said that Muslim services are banned in consecrated churches). A similar service was held in an Episcopal Church of Scotland church in Aberdeen. I am all in favour of dialogue and co-operation with Muslims which does not involve any compromise of the faith but back in the nineties I campaigned very publicly against interfaith worship events where Jesus was excluded or marginalised, especially when they were held in churches. I am still of the same opinion.

Corruption

The Pope has attacked corruption particularly in finances at the Vatican. He accused Vatican bureaucrats as hypocritical, having a lust for power and guilty of “careerism and opportunism.” There have also been examples of financial corruption in other denominations.

Spiritual failure

The Evangelical Alliance reports that 50% of (especially younger) evangelicals don’t read the Bible daily and 37% don’t pray daily. Only 40% feel their church is good at making disciples of new Christians and only 26% feel equipped to share their faith with others.

The Bishop of London said in September 2014 “Western religion is feeble.” He added: “The real trouble with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes, or hasn’t embraced the emancipation of women – it’s that it’s spiritual incredible. It’s just as shallow as the rest of us … The church has accommodated itself so much, and is so lacking in distinction.”

Why is the church declining?

I have thought a great deal about why many churches are declining and here are some of my conclusions:

1. Clergy are often not people of prayer and so do not encourage and facilitate adequate corporate prayer in their congregations, outside brief intercessions in the Sunday services or mid-week liturgical services.

2. Clergy are often very inadequately taught about the content of Scripture and consequently often do not teach it to their congregations.

3. Clergy very often are not taught New Testament principles of church growth and development and so do not adopt them or act on them.

4. Clergy are very often not taught how to do evangelism and so do not do it, even in sermons and addresses where there are people present who are seeking God.

5. The church has little effective prophetic voice.

6. The church is maintenance-minded and most outreach is fundraising. Even Fresh Expressions are often initiated to stem decline rather than spread the gospel to new people.

7. The church seems to think that if it accommodates itself to secular attitudes, e.g. on sexuality, it will lead to church growth whereas, in fact, it will lead to even greater irrelevance. The church will be brought into line with secular opinions and will lose even more of its distinctiveness and of its visibility.

These weaknesses need to be addressed and if the established congregation is unwilling to support a ministry which corrects them it should be carried out in a Fresh Expressions context, using any willing individuals.

Tim Farron, a candidate for leadership of the UK Liberal Democrat Party, has been criticised for bias because he is a committed Christian. He responded: “Surely you wouldn’t … run a campaign against somebody standing for leader if they were a secular humanist, or Jewish or Muslim. And if you wouldn’t do that, then don’t do this.” Quite! We can see the way things are going in the UK.

As I said before, although I have serious problems with Islamic belief (which I shall return to in the future), I will publish significant positive news about Muslims when it arises. It is part of loving our Muslim neighbour. I want nothing to do with hateful attitudes towards Muslims.

Hamid Slimi, imam of a mosque in Mississauga, Canada, asked his congregation to donate towards the repairs of a nearby Roman Catholic Church which had been seriously damaged by a young Muslim suffering from schizophrenia. They gave $5000. The Catholic priest said Slimi was “a very, very gracious man.”

Sir Jonathan Evans is a former director-general of MI5 and an expert on counter terrorism wrote in today’s Daily Telegraph:

“The forthcoming Counter-Extremism Bill aims to crack down on extremism but definitions will be crucial, and implementation of the new powers will be fraught with risk. One can imagine already the powers being used against harmless evangelical street preachers or the like, out of misplaced zeal and a desire to demonstrate that they are not directed against one religion alone.”

Quite! We need to pray about this trend towards persecution.