With the release of the World Watch List in January 2020, we get a catalog of the most difficult places for the followers of Jesus around the world. Join us for an inside look at some of these places from someone who travels there regularly and has first hand exposure as Scott interviews Rienk and hears of the stories of the persecuted church in 2020.
To learn more about the World Watch List, watch their 2020 press conference.
More About Our Guest
For security reasons, we cannot reveal the name or photo of our guest for this week’s podcast. He is known by his pseudonym, Rienk.
Scott Rae: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics here at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We're here today in the offices of Open Doors USA, which if you're not familiar with this organization, you should be. It's one of the largest and most effective organizations in the world serving the persecuted church around the world. They have offices all over the world and operations in many parts of the world that we can't talk about for security reasons. We're here in the office today with our special guest and again for security reasons I can only give you his first name. You might be able to pick up by the slight accent that he has where he comes from. His name is [Rienk 00:00:00:49], and Rienk partners with Open Doors to work throughout North Africa and the Middle East. He travels extensively throughout these regions serving the persecuted church, particularly in those regions. So Rienk, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us on this.
Rienk: Thank you very much. My pleasure to be here.
Scott Rae: So tell us just maybe as a way to get started here, tell us a little bit about... Give us your assessment of the state of the church in the parts of the Middle East and North Africa where you travel most frequently.
Rienk: Yeah. That's a big question, but the church in the Middle East, let me start here. It was born in the Middle East, and God started his church basically in the middle of this region. The promise of the Lord has been, he will never ever forsake his church. So that means the state of the church, it's in a good state, right? But at the same time, the Lord promised a lot of pressure on the followers of Christ. We see that of course these days very much in the Middle East. So the church is under a lot of pressure. It has been through a very difficult situation in countries like Iraq and Syria recently with ISIS invading Christian villages and kicking out Christians from their homes and villages and destroying churches. In another country like Egypt, the Coptic church is especially under pressure, very open attacks, but also very hidden attacks especially on girls being kidnapped and abducted and pressured into marriages with the Muslim men.
The state of the church, it's a difficult situation. The number of Christians are decreasing because of Christians from Syria and Iraq fleeing to Europe and other continents of course. That's part of the reality. The other part of the reality is more optimistic. What have you see is because of ISIS, because of violence, because of fundamentalism, a lot of Muslim start to question their own religion and they start to look for alternatives. One alternative is atheism, right? But the other alternative is Christianity. So they start to explore what the Christian faith is all about. Over the last decades or so, there has been a lot of missionary work and there has been a lot of Christian satellite television broadcast and things like that. Also radio broadcast. That's now going to be fruitful.
Next to the existing churches, we see a new movement of Christians from Muslim backgrounds.
Scott Rae: I want to explore that idea in just a moment, but let's go back to the lives of some of these persecuted believers in Iraq and Syria and other parts of the Middle East where they're under siege. Tell our listeners a little bit about what daily life is like for these brothers and sisters in Christ who are living in these kinds of environments.
Rienk: The situation for those Christians, let's go to Iraq. Lots of them had to flee already two times. They came from other parts of the country. They fled to the Northern part, to Kurdistan, and they established themselves in a relatively quiet zone. That was after the Saddam Hussein, etc, etc. Now ISIS invaded those villages in 2014, '15 and people had to flee. Now some of them are now... Big numbers of them left the country, but the remaining ones are now returning back to their villages. They find first of all their churches in ruins. The liturgy cannot continue. That's very difficult for them. Although the liturgy continued in the refugee camps. But they also find their homes and houses being destroyed and they lost their belongings because ISIS fighters robbed them of all their belongings.
The daily life is now a life of rebuilding, being very close to each other as a Christian community and to the church leaders and the pastors who are now in a very difficult role to shepherd their flock in a very special way. Many of them have gone through trauma. They offer trauma counseling quite a bit and we teach processors and church leaders to do so. They are trying to make the most out of it. But all basic utilities like electricity, but also schools and basic healthcare has been under pressure. So they have to rebuild that and restart it as well. It's kind of a very fragile situation for them because at the moment, Iraq is in turmoil again, right? There are lots of demonstrations. Young generations are very much protesting against the government, against corruption, against the situation in the country in general.
What is going to happen? Christians are really in a fragile situation. The positive side of that is they are drawn closer to Jesus and to God and to the Holy Bible to read that and to get the strength out of the word of God.
Scott Rae: So it sounds like a tenuous existence, but very much faith strengthening at the same time.
Rienk: Yeah. What we said when we looked at the number of Christians left, maybe we are talking about 120,000, 150,000 Christians left and especially in the Northern part of Iraq, we said what is so important is to come alongside them and together with them, strengthen their identity in Christ. Not their identity so much in their belongings, their property, their lands. Although that's very important for a Middle Easterner of course, but it's very important that we come alongside them to strengthen their identity in Christ.
Scott Rae: Now you work a lot, I understand, with what you call MBBs, Muslim background believers.
Scott Rae: Tell us a little bit about that work.
Rienk: Yeah. We come across people who have discovered Jesus in various ways, often through dreams and visions. As I said earlier on, those Muslims or former Muslims now, they become very dissatisfied with their own religion. Many believers, for example inside Iran, prior to them making the decision to follow Christ that we don't want to be called Muslim anymore. We don't want to be related to Islam. It's not our religion anymore. They look at the leadership of the country and the religious leadership was very oppressive and also corrupt. Now when they became Christian, after they became Christians, they were kicked out of their fellowship, their family, their [ooma] so to speak, which is the Arabic word for family and fellowship. Then they were on their own and in many cases, they don't know from each other, from others who became Christians, whether they are Christians. So they look for a new family but it takes time.
But the way we support them is they organize themselves mostly in house churches, underground often. Yeah. Then what they need is what does it take to follow Christ? We do a lot of discipleship in small groups, often online as well. So we provide them the training, what it means, the ABC of Christian faith. What does it mean to follow Christ, and how does that apply to your daily life? That's a big proposition, a big challenge.
Scott Rae: In a place where you really don't have the freedom to be public.
Rienk: Exactly. Yeah.
Scott Rae: Let me be a little more specific about that. Let's imagine that I am an individual who grew up a Muslim and I'm considering coming to faith in Christ. What exactly am I risking by that decision to convert to Christianity?
Rienk: You're risking your life first of all. I mean, because it's a-
Scott Rae: So that's a serious threat, to be killed if you go public.
Rienk: Yeah. Indeed. Because you're dishonoring the family, right? Your father will say, "You're dishonoring me." The ultimate punishment is the killing. When the father and the family's a bit less strict, they will probably kick you out of the family environment. You're not welcome anymore.
Scott Rae: Send you into exile.
Rienk: Yeah, kind of. You are not welcome anymore. You cannot join the dinners and the family gathering anymore. Of course, what is also is in many cases, it means that if you are woman, you're forced to marry a Muslim man. But you don't want that as a Christian women anymore. So that is also you lose your connections and also your livelihood, right? Because who's going to take care of you?
Scott Rae: As a man, if I consider coming to faith in Christ, I would lose my job by converting?
Rienk: Yeah. You will lose your job and you will need to look for another source of income and maybe hide your Christianity because otherwise you don't get a job.
Scott Rae: Okay. Let me ask you a little bit about that too. We hear in the West that it's becoming common practice for Muslim background believers once they come to faith to stay in the shadows and not go public with their faith. Some will continue to go to a mosque. Women might continue to wear the same kind of Muslim dress and they don't tell anybody. Unless they know it's someone who's safe to tell them. How prevalent is that in the areas that you've traveled in?
Rienk: I think I see two streams. Yeah, there are new believers who do this. It's a kind of comparable to the general of [inaudible] who came to Israel, came to faith somehow and then he asked, "Can I continue to bow down for this other god?" Yeah, there are believers who act like that. But I come across new believers who act differently more and more because the new believers in general, they have a deep zeal to share the gospel with their family. I remember one guy I met recently, he said, "Rienk, I haven't met my mom for 19 years." There was pain in his voice because of the fact that he was kicked out of the family, but he still loved his mom. He said, "I want to go back. Yes, to see her. But first of all to share the gospel, to share Jesus with her because she's about to die." So I see a lot of-
Scott Rae: Even at the risk of their lives to do that?
Rienk: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I also know from... Because often families come to faith or Muslims come to faith in small family settings as well. Then I came to villages where there was one family who became a Christian, a Muslim family who became a Christian, and another family in that village became Christian as well. Then they said, "Let's move to the other village to share the gospel." I see that happening more and more. There is boldness and for me, it's like, okay, I see the book of acts alive today. Both those development I see [crosstalk 00:13:45].
Scott Rae: What do you say to the person who elects to stay in the shadows?
Rienk: I say God has a time for everything. Let's continue to support that person in his or her journey behind Christ. It takes time, right? Like it takes time for you and me to speak out yes or no, right? So we need to mature in the faith.
Scott Rae: Yeah. No, we didn't become spiritually mature overnight.
Rienk: Exactly. Yeah. God has his ways of sharing the gospel. It's also what we often hear is that people see a change in attitude, a change in behavior, and that's a witness in itself as well.
Scott Rae: Tell us a little bit more about the dreams and visions that are the medium by which it sounds like a pretty significant number of Muslims are coming to faith this way. We hear about miracles, healing miracles that are being used really powerfully to bring people to faith. How prevalent is that?
Rienk: It's prevalent, but I would say it's one of the tools God is using to bring the people to the Bible. I mean, often the dreams and the visions are with a person in white, which is Jesus and it's related often to make sure you get the book, the Holy book, and then of course this is for us as Christians, those are two very important things. But those dreams are... It fits the culture and it fits the way of thinking and I think it's convincing the Muslim that this is really something very important. When I have a dream or a vision, it's true. So God is using that a lot, but it's a means to an end I would say. Let's not say, oh the dreams and then it's through now. In the end, God wants them to start reading the Bible to get to know Jesus.
Scott Rae: It's a first step.
Scott Rae: How difficult is it to get access to the scriptures in some of these places?
Rienk: I mean, it's... Let me start differently. It's dangerous to have a Bible in your home or in your bedroom or under your pillow. That's because when people discover that, you can be killed. Yes, in some countries it's not allowed to have the Bible. So in certain countries the Bible needs to be smuggled in or it can be downloaded online or things like that. So it's sometimes very difficult.
Scott Rae: In the West, we live in a culture where religious freedom is something that we take for granted. Though I think there's been some erosion of that in parts of the West, but I think for the most part, we take that as a fundamental right. Right of conscience. It's hard for a lot of people to relate to the way the church is persecuted in other parts of the world. What is it about the gospel that is so threatening to Muslims and to Muslim communities in the places you travel in the Middle East?
Rienk: The fact is it's about the gospel and the kingdom of God is about a complete change. It's a reverse in the way you live, you behave, your attitudes, but also the society. I mean it's going to change the way you relate to your wife and to women. It's going to change the way you relate to money and things and power. In that way, it's also threatening for us as Westerners, I sometimes feel there's no difference because if you really follow Jesus, you're going to look differently to your wealth, to your car, to your home, the way you think of your wife or your husband. Look at what Jesus was addressing in the Jewish sculpture, everything was put upside down and I think that's the threat in general I would say to all of us, but in this case, specifically to Muslim society.
Scott Rae: So in addition to the dreams and vision, I think that's really helpful when you say that's a first step but not the end. But what is it that's making the gospel so credible to Muslims today?
Rienk: I think what's making the gospel so credible is the core elements of the gospel itself, the concept of forgiveness. Laugh, peace, reconciliation, knowing God as a father. These are elements which are completely new and it gives in the end, the joy to a person and the dignity of a human being. Discovering the image of God in each other. Those elements are so critical and refreshing in societies which are oppressed and which are in slavery.
Scott Rae: The idea that you could actually have a relationship to God.
Rienk: Absolutely. God is your father.
Scott Rae: That isn't a new concept.
Rienk: Yeah. That God is not the one who is going to punish you if you don't live a good life. No. God is the God who is Holy for sure, but he's going to forgive and comes next to you in Jesus Christ. Of course those concepts are new, the Trinity. Those are difficult things for Muslims to understand, but it's there and the relationship, the fatherhood of God, the love of God, and the certainty God gives that you will be and you are his child. It's amazing, redeeming for Muslims.
Scott Rae: We interviewed on this podcast several months ago a young Albanian man who had actually... He'd had two conversions. He grew up in communist Albania and converted from atheism to Islam, and then converted from Islam to Christianity. He's now a doctoral student in biblical studies in the UK and he's specifically studying the field of textual criticism, which is how for our listeners, that's the ways in which the Bible was copied throughout generations. He said the reason he's studying that is because one of the primary objections that Muslims have to Christian faith is that the Bible is unreliable because there's no way it could have been copied accurately over the number of hundreds of years that it was. Do you find that an argument that's raised against Christian faith? If so, how do you respond to that?
Rienk: I think you'll find this argument at the theological level. I think when we deal with the regular Muslims, they don't argue that much about that. I mean, we work grassroots.
Scott Rae: Are they inclined just to sort of take the Bible as it is?
Rienk: Yeah. Especially when it's supported by a dream, like as we were talking about.
Scott Rae: That's very powerful.
Rienk: It's very powerful to say this is not just a book. It's not a corrupted version, although there are religious leaders will say so, but they are also people who use their common sense. They can say it's a corrupted book, but we have billions of Christians believing this for many, many years. Yeah. But of course in our teaching, we will help them kind of counter attack those arguments that the Bible was a corrupted book. It's a different book than the Koran of course. We say it's inspired by God. God used different writers to do so. It's not-
Scott Rae: But not dictated.
Rienk: Not dictated.
Scott Rae: Does it help Muslims who come to faith? Does it help them embrace the Bible that they are coming from a religion of the book themselves?
Rienk: It helps a lot, I think. I think when I compare Christians from a Muslim background with my fellow Christians, we sometimes easily kind of do we have the full respect for the Bible as they do as a Holy book? I learned from them to say the Holy Bible. We say often the Bible, but it's a Holy book for us as well. If I may, Muslims respect the Koran very much. The new Christians, the Muslim background believers, they respect the Bible in the same way. To that extent, they never put the Holy Bible on the floor. Nor do I now. I learned from them. I put the Holy Bible on the table. It's the word of God. They have high respect for the Bible. Yeah.
Scott Rae: Yeah. I suspect many of our listeners probably haven't thought about that connection. Once someone's come to faith, they already have a respect for the book in general that often transitions rather easily to a respect for the Bible that maybe those of us in the West don't automatically have.
Rienk: Former Muslims, they also have a big respect for liturgy. Maybe in the evangelical circuit we have less respectful liturgy in our churches. But they love the traditional church liturgy because they see something of the Holy gods in that.
Scott Rae: So for our listeners in the West, what would you like them to know about and to pray about for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East?
Rienk: I think what your listeners and Western Christians need to know that maybe we see churches in the West being hit by secularism and declining. Maybe sometimes we are discouraged to see that. Yes I understand, but there is another reality. God is bringing people from other religions to faith. Let's be inspired and learn from those new believers because they are fresh in the faith. I learned personally a lot from them and I think we as Christians in the West listen carefully to them.
Scott Rae: Let's run with that just for a moment. How has your work with the persecuted church in the Middle East impacted your faith in your life personally?
Rienk: What I learned, it has strengthened my faith big time because you have faith in things you don't see. We started our conversation with looking at the harsh reality of the Christians in the Middle East. That is a reality, right? But there is another reality. God's reality is beyond that reality and we need to learn, we need to see it. It's great that I can share about this on this podcast because there's much more and we need to have faith that God is growing his church at the moment. That's what we need to really believe in as Western Christians. Despite the fact that the church in the United States and in Europe where I'm from seems to decline. Although I don't believe it's declining. I think it's being purified. That's how I look at it, but that's another topic maybe for our next conversation.
Scott Rae: Rienk, one last question for you. Tell our listeners a little bit about how they can pray specifically for you and you work.
Rienk: If they can pray for me and my teams in those countries I work in that we continue to see the movements of the Holy spirit, or in other words, the reality beyond the reality. Then act according to His will so that we strengthen that what remains in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, but also that what grows.
Scott Rae: This has actually been very encouraging to hear about how the church is growing in some of these really tough parts of the world. You would think the places that are formally close to the gospel and the most hostile might be the hardest ground for the gospel to take root, but from what you're saying, it sounds like it's somewhat the opposite of that. That there are very encouraging signs about the church's growth and about the maturity of believers as they grow in their appreciation for God's word and mature, but still face incredible obstacles. I want to come into our listeners to pray for you, Rienk, and to pray for your work and for the brothers and sisters in the faith who you serve, you and your teams serve so faithfully around the world.
Rienk: Thank very much.
Scott Rae: Yeah, thanks so much for being with us. It's been a terrific conversation.
This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Rienk and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.