This is the question posed today by several news outlets on television and in print. I suppose the question is inevitable and fair given the current events in the Middle East and North Africa and the graphic nature of them. The question is most likely the logical one to ask. It seems wise indeed that those who are Christian in the area simply give up their faith or leave. Fortunately for the faithful, the wisdom of this world is not the wisdom of God. Allow me to use Africa as an example for a moment.
In the twentieth century, the Christian population in Africa exploded from an estimated eight or nine million in 1900 (8 to 9%) to some 335 million in 2000 (45%). Also in the 20th century alone there have been some 1.8 million Christian martyrs in Africa. This number does not include conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi nor does it account fully for 17 years of Sudanese civil war. If it did, that number would be much higher. This is but one example. The church explodes in China ( 162 million compared to 23 million in the state church which is not Christian) where about 12% of the population is currently a practicing Christian despite the best efforts of the Government there to stifle it. To go back even further we can see the persecution of several Roman Emperors of Christians (Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus, Decius, Valerian, Maximinus the Thracian, Aurelian, Diocletian and Galerius) going well into the 4th century and the eventual fall of the Roman Empire. which led to the apologies (early writings in defense of Christianity that have done much to shape our theology) and the eventual establishment of the church we have today.
We tend to look at this as a tragedy because of the loss of life, but in doing so, we miss the larger picture…and we miss it as Lent is approaching no less. We miss that scripture has many promises for the martyrs. We miss that we are called to die to ourselves at the very least, and that while we struggle with that, there are those giving their Earthly lives to show us the way. We miss that it is in and because of the blood of Christ that we have the hope of the world to come and that the blood of martyrs is to remind us of that. Blood has always held importance to God from the sacrifices of the old testament for man to reconcile himself to God to the final sacrifice of Christ so that man might be reconciled to God. Why is it then that we would ask if this is an end to Christianity in the region? We, of all people, should know that this is not an end but a beginning.
The blood of martyrs has always fertilized the souls of those in the region so that seeds of faith may take root. The blood of the martyrs has always preceded workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives and lands they occupy. The blood of martyrs has always served to strengthen the faith of those who hear of it and embolden them to propel the truth of the gospel ever forward. The blood of martyrs is not for our mourning, it is rather for our inspiration. The blood of martyrs is shed so that our faith may grow and so that faith in others may take root. Most importantly, in this season especially, the blood of martyrs is to point us to the cross where the most precious blood of all was spilled. It is to remind us that on the cross there were many who thought that things had ended also. It is to spark in us that hope and realization that in Christ and the common faith that we share, spilled blood is never the end of a thing, but a glorious and new beginning where God moves through the Holy Spirit and transforms lives bringing us ever closer to the return of Christ. Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East and North Africa? No, not even close. It is the beginning of the Spirit preparing to work and move in a mighty way. That should not be an occasion for us to be fearful and in mourning, but rather an occasion for comfort and for us to look for the Spirit and rejoice that we get to bear witness.