Religious hostility is at an all-time high, according to the latest Pew Research Center report, noting that the number of countries where religious minorities are abused doubled between 2007 and 2012.
Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List identifies the top 50 countries “where Christians faced the most pressure and violence.” Five of the top 10 are in the Middle East, with Syria now ranked number three.
An estimated 600,000 Syrian Christians have fled Syria, out of a population of 2 million to 3 million Christians in the country.
The well-founded fear is that Christianity will be decimated in this country where Christians have had a presence and witness since the time of Christ.
The story of Christianity in much of the Middle East has been one of survival rather than evangelism and growth.
Amid the turmoil and violence, a witness to Christ in the Middle East has remained, though sometimes surviving is all that can be done.
Is it possible to talk about Christian witness in countries where churches are being destroyed and Christians are being targeted with violence? Are there other ways of being a witness to Jesus Christ in such a context?
I had a conversation with an Arab church leader several years ago as radical Islam was beginning to target Christian communities in the region.
He said one of the few ways left for the church in the Middle East to maintain an effective witness in an increasingly hostile context was to reach out to the poor and demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ.
His comment reflects one of the 12 principles set forth in the World Council of Churches’ publication, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.”
Principle 4 asserts: “Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief services and acts of justice and advocacy are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel.”
“The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach,” the principal continued. “Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service.”
Too often it is presumed that the only valid method of Christian witness in a pluralistic context is verbal proclamation.
In the Middle East, where words and rhetoric have little meaning and where hostility toward the Christian community is real, acts of love and compassion are powerful communicators.
However, there is a power relationship in any act of charity. The vulnerability of the poor can very easily be manipulated by providing assistance to ensure that they join a specific group.
Acts of service should not be tools for exploiting poor, vulnerable communities. There should be no conditionality in the assistance that is provided.
Caring for those who are not part of mainstream society because of their brokenness and rejection is, among other things, a prophetic act, because caring for the poor shows what the Kingdom of God is really like.
It is a place where the weak, vulnerable and broken are not discarded but valued and where people, regardless of who they are, find welcome.
For it to be a prophetic Christian act, the gospel also needs to be articulated with words because being compassionate and wanting justice is not unique to Christianity.
It is part of being human, regardless of one’s faith tradition or worldview.
Acts of service and justice enacted as part of the mission of God demonstrate the reality of the kingdom of God.
Yet it cannot be assumed that by merely observing or experiencing acts of mercy and service that people will know the king and his kingdom.
What does this look like to engage in ministries of compassion and justice that are distinctly Christian?
No. 1. Realize that the church is not just a spiritual institution that addresses eternal issues, but that it is also a historical institution in the community with relationships, networks and credibility.
As part of the community, it has a responsibility to the families and individuals as well as the biblical injunction to be salt and light in the world (see Matthew 5:13-16).
No. 2. The verbal proclamation is not always a pre-packaged presentation of the Gospel.
Jesus fed the 5,000 and then talked about being the bread of life (John 6), so we should consider how those in need perceive this Good News. Is my presentation of the Gospel good news to them or is it so far removed from their reality that they cannot relate to it?
No. 3. The church and the people of God need to reflect the transformation that the Gospel brings.
In Syria, many churches are becoming places of compassion for anyone, regardless of their faith or ethnic background.
In Lebanon, many of the churches are demonstrating what forgiveness and reconciliation look like through acts of compassion as they forgive Syrians for their 20-year occupation of the country.
The verbal proclamation and the demonstration of the reality of the message cannot be separated.
Rupen Das is director of the master of religion in Middle Eastern and North African studies at Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. A longer version of this column first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission. You can follow IMES on Twitter @IMESLebanon.
Rupen Das is research professor at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto and the national director of the Canadian Bible Society. He is author of several books, including “Compassion and the Mission of God.”