The Other War

With all the attention given to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq by the media, there still remain unanswered questions. The largest questions for many Christians are, "How is the Gospel progressing?" and "How are the congregations of Christians faring?" Of course, these questions are far from the thoughts of network newsmen. We know practically nothing about believers in Iraq and Kuwait, although it is said there are some ten assemblies of believers in Kuwait (mainly composed of workers from India). Of these three Middle East countries, we know the most concerning the work of God in Saudi Arabia.

A Snatch of History: Probably the first missionaries to what is now Saudi Arabia were those converted on the day of Pentecost (citizens of Crete and Arabia heard Peter preach, Act 2:11) and the Apostle Paul (Gal. 1:17-18) spent three years there. But if Paul did much evangelism at that time, there is no record. It is likely that the Gospel did reach down into the peninsula. There was a Christian community at Hirah at the end of the fourth century and possibly others at different centers.

The first missionary of modern times to Saudi Arabia (as distinct from the other states of the peninsula) was James Cantine in 1889, followed in 1890 by Samuel M. Zwemer. They spent a period in language study in Beirut and then proceeded to Arabia. Zwemer gave sixty years of his life to the work and was known throughout the Muslim world as "the apostle to Islam." J. H. Kane says of him:

"Zwemer was a rare combination of the pious and the practical, the saint and the scholar. He was a world traveler, a prolific writer, a dynamic speaker, a brilliant scholar, and a great personal worker. He knew more about Islam and the Christian approach thereto than any other man in the first half of the twentieth century. He founded and for many years edited Muslim World, a scholarly journal devoted to the Christian mission in the Muslim world."1

After World War I, the nomadic Arab tribes in what is now Saudi Arabia came under the control of a strong puritanical Muslim state. All religions other than Islam are denied the right to hold meetings or to propagate their faith. Jews and non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Today, Saudi Arabia is the exemplar of an Islamic state. Islam rules the judicial and governmental system and every sphere of life. Only one percent of the population are even considered to be nominally Christian. These are predominantly expatriates, and there are few known national believers.

The Saudi's unbending policies were felt by two Canadian nurses who went there to work. The one nurse was informed that even a personal Bible would not be allowed, so she had hers rebound with another book's cover to escape confiscation. The second nurse made the mistake of innocently bowing her head to give thanks in the hospital cafeteria and within twenty-four hours she was being packed up and sent back to Canada.

Until now the two greatest opportunities for reaching Saudis has been through radio beamed into the peninsula and through students and business people going abroad where the Gospel is freely heard. Consider, then, the unprecedented opportunity seen in Saudi Arabia by the huge influx of foreign troops. There appears to be a small, but genuine Christian element among the servicemen. Since August of 1990, grave warnings were issued to troops about evangelizing Saudis, and for a time it was rumored that Bibles would not be allowed in. If there was such a ban on Bibles, it has been lifted. Chaplaincy departments are shipping large quantities of Bibles, New Testaments, Bible study materials, tracts, devotional guides and song books for personal use by servicemen. The Gideons International and Christian Business Men's chapters have energetically supplied Bibles. Private funding channeled through various agencies is enabling Dickinson Press of Grand Rapids, MI to publish the Operation Desert Storm Camouflage Edition of the Bible. The Bibles have a no-glare, desert-camouflage cover, and are distributed to soldiers free of charge by the military chaplains in Saudi Arabia. At least four hundred thousand of these Bibles and New Testaments have been produced by Dickinson's alone since last August.2

"It seems like everyone is so receptive to the Lord right now with this crisis going on," reports a spokesperson for the International Bible Society. "Hearts are open and ears are alert and testimonies are strong."

The heightened spiritual interest among the soldiers is spurred on by at least two factors: (1) the austere rules imposed by the Saudis; "lewdness and drunkenness are forbidden"; (2) the real possibility of facing an early death. The movement of the Spirit of God among the troops is evident. One Christian soldier from Michigan wrote home saying that there had been 57 conversions in his division. Another evangelical chaplain reported 153 had professed to be saved. On one occasion twenty people identified with Christ in baptism. How many of these are "foxhole conversions," eternity will tell. The Gulf War will bring disruption which could facilitate the spread of the Gospel. Operation Desert Storm may yet cause the wrath of man to praise the Lord. The wind blows where it wills, so we should pray that the sovereign Spirit will cause the Gospel to blow back the dark veil across the hearts of the Saudi citizenry in this hour.

 

1 That the World May Know, Volume I: The Restless Middle East. Edited by Dr. Fredk. A. Tatford, p. 307.

2The Grand Rapids Press, January 26, 1991.