OXFORD, England (WEIS) – As a result of the Middle East peace talks in Madrid, people in the Middle East could become more open to the Christian gospel, observed the international director of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.
Tom Houston of Oxford, England, said it was a near miracle that peace talks could be held at all, and some Arabs are more open toward Christianity than before. “There is a close identification in the thinking of Muslims between ‘what is Christian’ and ‘what is Western’ (particularly American),” said Houston following the peace talks.
“This is because in Islam, the state and religion cannot be separated. Muslims thus imagine it is the same with any country and its religion, including the West and Christianity. So if America or the West is the enemy, then Christianity is also automatically the enemy.”
Houston said that during the Madrid peace talks, Americans appeared to be trying not to have double standards in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict by comparison with the Iraq/Kuwait conflict. “This helps to improve the perception of Americans, and consequently Christianity.”
Houston, former president of World Vision International, added that relief aid channeled through Christian churches to Iraq and Jordan in recent months emphasizes that Christians care in practical ways about the suffering people of the Middle East.
In an analysis of the current status of world evangelization entitled Scenario Status of World Evangelization, 1991-2000, Houston said that the Persian Gulf war earlier this year changed dramatically the conditions in the Middle East and the Islamic world as a whole.
“There is much greater and somewhat more friendly contact between many of the nations of the Middle East and those in the West,” Houston said.
A prime example of that change is the coalition of Middle Eastern nations which came together in 1990/91. “The neutrality of Iran, and the alliance of Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and Islamic states with the USA, UK, France, Italy and other countries in Europe brought contact and cooperation in a way that could not have been predicted,” Houston said.
A key factor in the openness of Middle Eastern people to Christianity is likely to be the degree in which democratization progresses in the region. “If it goes well, then religious liberty may not be far behind and that could lead to a new hearing for the gospel.”
Houston said the two forces of growing Muslim Fundamentalism and growing secularization are working in opposite directions for and against democratization. Secularization in the Middle East is placing an emphasis on literacy, education, and material prosperity, and this leads to democratization, Houston observed. The net effect of the war will be to strengthen the forces of secularization in the region and work for democratization.
In contrast, however, Muslim Fundamentalism with its drive to apply Shariah law will continue. The divisions between Shias and Sunni within Islam will be perpetuated, but secularization will take its toll on both.
“There is likely to be some revulsion to what Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddem Hussein have stood for, but it will take time to see how this will be expressed. All this will take place in a very turbulent atmosphere and Christians will need to be very bold and very brave to get in there and share the Good News,” Houston said. “Those who do will need a deep understanding of Islam as it is today, sympathy for Muslims, and patience in the process witnessing for Christ.”