Over the last two decades, wars have ravaged Iraq and Syria. As a result, millions of refugees have spilled out of the Middle East, heard the gospel, and trusted Christ. Many of these are Muslim Background Believers (MBBs). But bringing them into the church can be difficult and dangerous.
For centuries God’s people have prayed for this day, and we rejoice in welcoming these new believers. From the outside, such a welcome seems simple. Historically the gospel has smashed all sorts of barriers between people. However, certain legal, social, and ecclesiastical difficulties present significant obstacles to welcoming MBBs fully into the church. To embrace MBBs, the church must be aware of these obstacles.
Legal Obstacles: Restrictions on Conversion
The legal obstacles Arab countries throw in the path of MBBs are shrewd and Satanic. They make it extremely difficult to become a part of a local church family. In all Arab countries, citizens must register their religion and denomination. With the exception of Lebanon, those registered as Muslims cannot change their registered religion. Legally, conversion only flows in one direction: towards Islam. Thus, it is legally impossible for a Muslim to become a Christian.
These laws have sobering consequences. They make both evangelism of Muslims and their conversion illegal. No matter how clearly a convert professes Christ, the state does not recognize her new faith. This impacts her prospects for marriage: she may only marry a Muslim; she may not marry a registered Christian. It also impacts her future children: though they have never been in a mosque or opened the Qur'an, they will automatically be registered as Muslims.
These legal obstacles make joining the church terribly challenging for MBBs. Imagine you are a registered Christian in an Arab country. Marrying an MBB woman is illegal because the state considers her a Muslim. If you marry her anyway, her family may try to kill you or her. If you elude them, the children of the union will face all sorts of sanctions and obstacles because the state will also regard them as Muslims. If they grow up and marry, their children also will live under these same constraints. The net effect is isolating MBBs from the broader Christian community by punishing intermarriage. Legally, Muslim Background Believers do not exist.
“Legally, Muslim Background Believers do not exist.”
Social Obstacles: Prejudice and Discrimination
Outside of the legal obstacles, MBBs must overcome significant social barriers. Syria and Iraq are countries with great diversity, both ethnically and religiously. Nevertheless, discrimination against Christians is a social norm, encouraged publicly. Christians hear themselves openly cursed over the loudspeakers during Friday public prayer, and listeners are encouraged not even to shake hands with them!
This culture of discrimination affects the attitude of Christian Background Believers (CBBs) towards the MBBs who visit their churches. CBBs may worry: Has the MBB genuinely converted, or is he a member of the secret police? Will he remain faithful when called to endure discrimination and sanctions? Can I allow this MBB to marry my daughter and thus allow my grandchildren to be legally registered as Muslims? If this MBB joins our church, will their family retaliate with violence? And why are they visiting our church when there may be another closer to them?
If this seems suspicious, know that Islam is about fear. The chief restraint for any Muslim is fear: fear of God, of the imam, of the community, of family, and father! And we must not fail to mention the state. Add dozens of years of repressive state intelligence, and we can see how this creates a climate of fear and distrust between people. Thus, instead of a warm embrace, new converts in the Middle East can be greeted with suspicious glances.
How can we not sympathize? Saul had such a reputation for violence against the church that even after the saints in Damascus risked receiving him, the church in Jerusalem was afraid and did not believe he was a true disciple (Acts 9:26). He was only received after the apostles examined him.
Ecclesiastical Obstacles: Differences in Knowledge and Experience
A third type of obstacle MBBs face when joining the church is found within the church itself. In the Middle East, churches tend to be homogenous. CBBs worship together, and MBBs worship together, with a minority of churches containing both. Naturally, MBBs begin with a more shallow knowledge of the church’s ordinances, administration, and history than CBBs. When in the same church, this disparity can breed tension as they seek to pursue a common path together.
Though MBBs begin less informed, they often progress quickly. But a deepening relationship with God and growing biblical and doctrinal knowledge can mask immaturity in other areas of the Christian life—areas such as the family, dress, the workplace, and eating to the glory of God.
After leaving Islam for Christ, Yonis and Huda started attending our church in Syria. Yonis was a teacher, and Huda took care of their two little ones. As we might expect for MBBs, Christianity was all new for them: the worship, how Christians pray, how men and women relate, and how Christians live their lives together. As their pastor, I knew I needed to teach the congregation how to make them feel truly welcome.
Often MBBs feel as if they are forever being whispered about, so the congregation needed to gradually and purposefully pursue friendship while being sensitive about peppering them with personal questions. My wife and I made a habit of visiting them in their home. At first, we discipled them privately so they would feel comfortable asking questions and learning the basics of walking with Christ and life in the church. Gradually, we helped this family grow in grace and face the real challenges of life as MBBs in their family, community, and even our church. Eventually, because of the war, they fled Syria. But to this day, they and their children remain steadfast believers, actively walking with Christ and sharing their faith.
What tremendous obstacles Muslim Background Believers face as they seek refuge in Christ and his church! And while legal obstacles seem more out of our power to remove than church obstacles, to the Almighty, nothing is too difficult.