By Jeff Brumley
As complicated and sensitive as the situation in the Middle East is for Western governments, it is just as tricky for Christian organizations with missionaries in the region.
The region historically hostile to evangelism and ministry has become increasingly perilous for Baptist and other Christians as civil wars and terrorist groups like ISIS have driven terrified civilians from Iraq and Syria.
And because thousands of Orthodox and other eastern Christians are among the thousands of terrified refugees fleeing into neighboring nations, missionaries must be sensitive and careful about how they minister to those groups.
“There’s so much we have to be in touch with in the region when we think about ministry to and among either Christians or Muslims in that context,” said Rob Nash, a dean and professor of missions and world religions at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology.
Missionaries working in the Middle East and northern Africa have always faced government restrictions on their activities, including bans from proselytizing. Socially the practice is also taboo in those cultures.
“You always live with that challenge,” Nash said.
But those prohibitions against seeking to convert Muslims also apply in some areas against seeking to convert Arab Christians to Protestant traditions, Nash said.
Even when that’s not the case, Protestant Christian missionaries must set aside beliefs about the inadequacy of ancient, indigenous Christians when ministering to them as refugees, he said.
And that can be especially hard for evangelicals, added Nash, a former global missions coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“Evangelicals have to guard against the tendency of wanting to proselytize Christians,” he said. “That’s one of their biggest challenges.”
It’s a challenge some organizations and their partners and missionaries in the region are trying to embrace.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been working through existing ministries and its own field personnel to minister to refugees fleeing Middle Eastern civil wars and other conflicts.
According to an internal global missions document provided by the CBF, that effort includes increasing funding to regional ministries and missionaries who “avoid cookie-cutter approaches and Western bias” in their work.
“They can also explore opportunities to leverage resources brought in by other agencies and groups to increase the impact in their chosen ministry locations,” according to the February 2014 document.
Among those locations are a pre-existing ministry in Lebanon, for which $25,000 was being sought, and $10,000 to expand the efforts of a couple working with refugees who have fled to Turkey.
ABPnews/Herald, which is not identifying those missionaries to avoid jeopardizing their safety, was told by the couple in Turkey that they are seeing increasing numbers of the Yazidis religious minority fleeing ISIS in Syria.
A group of churches in Turkey is supplying refugee camps and “we are assisting this effort with donations of … money, clothing, and other items,” one of the missionaries in Turkey said via email.
In Lebanon, the CBF-supported missionaries are supporting a women’s group that includes Bible study and food donations, a school for refugee children and a food project.
“The prayerful lives of field personnel and partners in direct contact with Syrians and their needs will shape the direction of the response,” the CBF missions document says about the ministries in Lebanon.
But wherever they are in the Middle East, field personnel constantly struggle with cultures where religious freedom is not a shared value, said Nell Green, a CBF missionary who has worked in a number of Muslim nations.
“It’s hard to explain to someone in a free, Western culture where you can just say whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want,” Green said.
It requires an awareness of an extreme antipathy to any outward signs and symbols of non-Muslim faiths. Missionaries must also be careful how they speak, Green said.
Working in those environments also requires an extreme sensitivity and openness to the Holy Spirit, Green said, to be prepared for those subtle opportunities to share the faith.
Green said Americans and others often become angry at such limitations. But she reminds them it’s simply the same insensitivity that drives opposition to Muslims in the U.S.
And the Western value of religious freedom is easily overcome by missionaries who see the great human needs in the countries where they are serving, Green said.
But the price they pay is real, she added.
“You do have to be careful and there are people watching you.”