The gospel in the Arab world

Michael Paton
01 April, 2004 6 min read

As a young National Serviceman, I was disappointed to be posted to Aden (now Yemen) in 1956 – I wanted to visit Singapore and Malaysia instead. After all, no tourists ever went on holiday to this barren spot!

But the Lord had reasons for sending me, because there I met Arabs for the first time. As a Christian of less than a year’s standing, I was deeply moved because, although they prayed to Allah, they had no means of coming to God – how could they without the only Mediator Jesus Christ?

The Lord gave me a love for the Arab World and its people. Nearly 50 years later, and after 34 years of sharing the gospel with Arabs and Berbers in North Africa and France, I can still testify to a love for Arabs and my longing for many of them to be saved.

A place in the world

When the Arab World is mentioned people think of sheikhs in white robes, oil refineries in the desert, and expensive lifestyles fuelled by petrodollars. Yet the vast majority of its people are poor, and many live off the land.

Many Arabs dream of regaining their rightful place in the world – 1,000 years ago they were leaders in science, astronomy and architecture. But their history has been one of turmoil. Algeria’s struggle for independence from France left 1 million Algerians dead, while bloody wars have also raged between Arab nations.

Today, of course, Islam is the dominant religion in the Arab World, as it has been since the seventh and eighth centuries.

But it was not always so. Arabs heard the gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and there were strong early churches in what is today the Arab World. They nurtured great leaders such as Cyprian, Origen and Tertullian (who said of brutal Roman persecution, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’).

The greatest of these leaders was Augustine (A. D. 354-430) who reminded the church that we are saved by grace alone. One of the writer’s most treasured memories is doing a Bible study with a young persecuted Algerian believer, sitting on a large block of stone in the ruins of Augustine’s city Hippo, more than 30 years ago.

Islamic takeover

But the churches became inward looking and failed to evangelise the masses, concentrating instead on constructing ornate church buildings. The church was split by heresies concerning the person of Christ, while Mariolatry was practised to such an extent that even today many Muslims think the Christian Trinity comprises Father, Son and Mary.

So it was that Islam took over during the century following Muhammad’s death in A. D. 632. For centuries the church elsewhere did little to take the gospel to the Arab World, while Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches that survived in Arab countries did little to share the gospel with Muslims.

One outstanding exception was a Spaniard named Raymond Lull, who kept visiting North Africa to preach Christ. He was warned off more than once, and eventually was stoned to death in 1315 on the beach at Bejaia, in today’s Algeria.

It was not until 1881 that Christian witness began in earnest, when the North Africa Mission (now AWM or Arab World Ministries) was founded to take the gospel to the people of North Africa.

Open and closed

Since those days some Arab states, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Sudan, have been somewhat open to Christian work. Others like Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya Yemen and Saudi Arabia have firmly resisted attempts to evangelise their people.

The Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia declared in March 2003 that there will never be churches in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, there are huge difficulties in preaching Christ in Arab countries today.

On one hand, great faith and perseverance are needed to win people to Christ. On the other, immense courage is needed to confess Christ, be baptised, and live and witness as a Christian.

However, in spite of the daunting opposition, a growing number of men and women all over the Arab World are confessing Christ as Lord and Saviour, and the church is growing. A young girl in Morocco was taught the Bible every week for four years before quietly saying one day, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’.

Little fruit

Missionaries in the first half of the nineteenth century often laboured for up to 40 years without seeing much fruit. One, James Haldane, preached the gospel in 1,000 towns and villages in southern Morocco without seeing a single conversion.

His colleagues in the Southern Morocco Mission (later to merge with AWM) paid a heavy price. It is a moving experience to visit the graves of seven of them in the European Cemetery behind the prison in Marrakesh. One was murdered after 56 years of ministry and the rest died of disease.

Yet these early missionaries laid the foundations – translating, distributing and teaching God’s Word. The results of their faithful labours are emerging today.

It is fair to say that the gospel is advancing among Arabs as never before, in spite of unprecedented opposition. Christ is building his church even in the Arab World.

The price paid by Arab and Berber Christians is also high. The Barnabas Fund reports that last July a Palestinian Christian took Bibles, cassettes and videos to distribute in the mountains. Ten days later his body was returned to his family cut into four pieces.

Doctrine of election

How will the church of Christ be built in countries where many who call themselves Christians do not witness to Muslims, and others prefer to emigrate to North America or Europe?

There are other difficulties too, such as the growing use by Christians of the Quranic name Isa for Jesus, when his beautiful name already exists in Arabic, Yasua. Isa in the Quran is not the Son of God and did not die for men’s sins.

There is also a worrying tendency to place undue emphasis on dreams, whereas Romans 10:17 declares that ‘faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God’.

The work is so hard that the writer asked himself on several occasions in Algeria what use he was there. He was then convicted of his sin, knowing the Lord had placed him there. What kept him going was the doctrine of election – the assurance that, as in Corinth, God had his people in the town where we worked (Acts 18:10).

Are missionaries needed?

Are missionaries still needed today? Emphatically yes. Evangelical Arabs are playing a growing part in evangelising the Arab World, and for this we thank God.

But there is a hunger in many hearts, and various means are needed to proclaim Christ. Door-to-door visitation or open-air preaching may not be allowed, but no one can stop gospel radio or satellite TV programmes entering homes.

The language in which the Bible is most frequently requested via the Internet is Arabic! Many are downloading Scriptures in countries where it is impossible to obtain a Bible. In all Arab countries there are reports of seekers hungry for the truth, longing to discover how to know God and receive forgiveness of sins.

This is not surprising when a distinguished Muslim theologian, Al Ghazali, said 1,000 years ago, ‘It is inconceivable that Allah should love mankind, because where there is love there must be a lover … a realisation that the beloved is needed for completeness of self. This is impossible with Allah, since Allah is completely perfect’.

Leaders needed

The growing churches need leaders filled with the Holy Spirit, who will declare Christ’s saving power with boldness. There is need for Christian marriages and freedom to worship.

However, in countries where Christians have been persecuted, some – disturbed by the violence – are seeking the way to God through the Saviour whom Christians worship.

This is particularly true in Sudan, where the persecuted people of the south have turned to Christ in large numbers. Many were formerly animists and nominal Christians, but terrible suffering has driven them to seek comfort from God, and many have been converted.

Some of these believers migrated to the Arab north of the country to find food and work, and are witnessing fruitfully to their Muslim neighbours.

In Algeria the church is growing at an unprecedented rate. Just over 20 years ago the church there was about 200 strong. Now, particularly among the Kabyle or Berber people of the north, but also among Arabs, there has been a work of the Holy Spirit. Some reports have been exaggerated, but reliable sources now number the church at several thousands.

Never in vain

Many difficulties remain in the Arab World, but obedience to Christ’s command to take the gospel to the entire world is never in vain.

Revelation 7:9 assures us that those redeemed by Christ will be drawn from every nation, including those that persecute Christians and outlaw the gospel. Nothing can stop the growth of Christ’s church. William Cowper reminds us of the certainty of gospel success:

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.

Based on an address given at the Grace Baptist Mission 2003 annual day

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