Closed Doors/Open Windows: The New Challenge in World Missions

Fatima loves chatting on the Internet. Several hours usually go by quickly in the Arabian Peninsula Internet café. The web is new, exciting and fun; you can even chat with foreign boys from other countries! And you can ask questions that the clerics in the mosque do not want to hear.

Some time ago Fatima chatted with two boys from another Arab country. She noticed something special about them and started wondering if they were Christians. She had wondered about their Holy book, the Bible. She knew there were many false things in the book, but she still wondered what the Bible taught about the Prophet Isa (Jesus). But in her country it is no easy task to get a Bible, and most Christian websites are blocked by government censorship. Maybe these boys could help her. Fatima hinted carefully about her sensitive subject and the boys understood her half-coded language. They promised to look into it and get back to her the next day. 

The two Christian boys used the rest of the evening downloading each book of the Bible in Arabic. It didn’t take long before Fatima had the entire Bible available on her computer.

New technologies enable us to communicate more effectively and widely. The Internet includes not only web pages but chat rooms, instant messaging capabilities, inexpensive phones and voice mail, blogs, searchable databases, email groups and news groups. When you surf, you can watch television, listen to live radio broadcasts, download broadcasts, download podcast files and more. Emails and instant messages are changing the way we express ourselves. We communicate more directly and use fewer words. New digital tools are becoming multifunctional as well. Cell phones can act as simple photo and video cameras, hold addresses, keep track of appointments and act as alarms.

New information technologies also give millions of people around the world a much better opportunity to communicate directly in cheaper and easier ways. The number of people using the Internet has virtually exploded and it will continue to grow rapidly in many parts of the world in the years ahead. The following statistics (from 2000 and 2005) indicate the number of people with Internet access in key Muslim majority countries.

 Number of People with Internet Access in Key Muslim Countries

Country 2000 2005 Growth in % % of the
Algeria 50,000 845,000 1,590.0% 2.6%
Bahrain  40,000 152,700 281.8% 21.6%
Egypt 450,000 4,200,000 833.3% 6.0%
Iran 250,000 4,800,000 1,820.0% 7.0%
Iraq 12,500 25,000 100.0% 0.1%
Jordan 127,300 600,000  371.3% 10.4%
Kuwait 150,000 600,000 300.0% 23.7%
Lebanon 300,000 600,000 100.0% 13.4%
Libya 10,000 205,000 1,950.0% 3.4%
Morocco 100,000 3,500,000 3,400.0% 11.7%
Oman 90,000 245,000 172.2% 10.2%
(West Bank)
35,000 160,000 357.1% 4.0%
Qatar 30,000 165,000 450.0% 21.5%
Saudi Arabia 200,000 2,540,000 1,170.0% 11.0% 
Sudan 30,000 1,140,000 3,700.0% 3.3%
Syria 30,000 800,000 2,566.7% 4.3%
Tunisia 100,000 835,000 735.0% 8.3%
United Arab Emeriates 735,000 1,384,800 88.4% 36.9%
Yemen 15,000 180,000 1,100.0% 0.9%
  2,754,800 22,977,000    
Bangladesh 100,000 300,000 200.0% 0.2%
Indonesia 2,000,000 15,300,000 665.0% 7.0%
Malaysia 3,700,000 10,040,000 171.4% 37.9%
Pakistan 133,900 2,000,000 1,393.7% 1.2%
Uzbekistan 7,500 880,000 11,633.3% 3.4%
8,696,300 51,497,000
Source:, Updated 9 November 2005.  

A Half-Open Window
In many Muslim countries there are no opportunities for traditional missionary or evangelism work. Yet there are windows open via the Internet. But these windows are only halfway open. Several countries have severe restrictions imposed on Internet use. The government in Saudi Arabia is boasting that they have censored more than 400,000 websites. The authorities claim they are blocking access to both pornographic sites and to sites with “unacceptable” political or religious content. A survey done at Harvard University documented that at least 246 websites indexed by Yahoo as religious sites were blocked.1

Several other Muslim countries also have controls. In Egypt the website for the Muslim Brotherhood is not accessible within the country. Authorities often have a surveillance of the “backbone servers” to monitor activity. In some Muslim countries both pornographic material and Christian content are available; however, these same countries may take action against people publishing this on the Internet. In Tunisia the government has blocked websites with reports about human rights abuses and taken the authors into custody. Libyan authorities block sites critical to the regime.

The Egyptian blogger Abd al-Karim Nabil Suleiman was arrested 26 October 2005 after having written candidly about the violent riots against a Coptic Christian church in his hometown of Alexandria. Suleiman is a Muslim student at Al Azhar University, but his blog published a very strong opinion against the behaviour of the Muslim majority.

Omrid Memarian and twenty other bloggers in Iran were arrested in October 2004. He was put in solitary confinement, repeatedly tortured and forced to sign false confessions. Omrid was released in December 2004.

In Bahrain the government has demanded that all websites be registered by the Department of Information in order for the authorities to protect their intellectual copyright. The sole Internet provider in the United Arab Emirates, Etisalat, is blocking pornographic web pages, a blog (of nudity, even though there are no pictures posted on the site), links to Bahai and all websites with an address coming from Israel.

In Syria the government is imposing restrictions on email and design of websites, and has tortured people who publish unwanted material online.2

Several Christian organizations and groups, however, are evangelizing on the Internet, and many of them receive hundreds of emails and feedback every month. Some sites are hosted within the Arab world while others are based outside the area to secure freedom of speech (and protect against malicious attacks aimed at shutting down the servers). Some ministries have hundreds of people gathered online for Bible studies. Mobile phones are used to share Bible verses, animations, etc. Podcasting is becoming a good tool among many students catching up with the latest lecture online. Although text and picture messages via mobile phones can be interrupted and blocked, they are likely to be less censored because of the overwhelming number of users.

The Internet Creates and Develops Closer Relationships
The Internet opens up countless opportunities for people to share their testimonies. Communicating via the Internet may amplify and strengthen feelings and personal attachment. Professor Bo Dahlstrom at Gothenburg University in Sweden emphasizes that emotions are expressed more strongly via the Internet.3

The Internet can spin close emotional ties between people who have never seen each other face to face. In my own research I have documented that Internet “churches” have played an important role in leading people to faith in Christ. Forty-five percent of the Internet ministries or churches surveyed in fall 1996 reported that one or more people had received Christ through their ministry.4

A genuine meeting with a new human being is often prompted by curiosity. People generally feel safe behind the computer screen. By communicating with another individual online, the message becomes more personal and may touch the heart of the recipient. This inclusive attitude may make it easier for the recipient to ask questions as well. And these questions may include faith issues.

The Christian message is essentially about a life relationship to the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Many people can share stories of new hope which resulted from their trusting in Christ. The Internet provides a special opportunity to communicate in an untraditional, direct, focused and “down-to-earth” manner.

The New Challenge for Mission
For hundreds of years churches and ministries have built up considerable experience and expertise in communicating the gospel in many languages and to a multitude of cultures and countries. This expertise needs to become more visible and available on the Internet. The World Wide Web is increasingly becoming a global, multicultural tool for communication and cooperation. Although English remains the dominant language, many others are gaining prominence.

The global Christian mission movement has made the gospel available to individuals and people groups the world over. The Internet is developing into a new worldwide arena where people feel at home despite different languages and cultures.

The number of people online is growing. It is entirely possible to assume that sixty to seventy million (of a total of three hundred million Muslims in North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula) will have access to the Internet within the next five years.

However, already a number of countries have reached a “critical mass” of people using the Internet. Leaders in world missions should be challenged to think and plan strategically. We are experiencing brand new opportunities for evangelism, training and resourcing of partners in countries traditionally considered as mission fields. And we have new opportunities to communicate effectively with people in areas and countries that have largely remained beyond reach for the gospel.

The new challenge for the global missions movement is to build equal partnerships with its friends and partners locally in other parts of the world. Churches and ministries may need to be challenged and encouraged to explore new opportunities; they may also need personnel or financial support to train people and develop multilingual meeting points on the Internet.

Partners involved in missions need to mobilize and equip volunteers and salaried personnel to use the Internet as a key resource tool in:

–    Sharing the gospel
–    Training people to use digital media and the Internet effectively
–    Developing better resources for education in a variety of topics
–    Facilitating partnerships in prayer
–    Facilitating a platform for holistic care among users of the Internet

A Personal Challenge
The challenge to think in a new way about sharing the gospel via the Internet or other digital media does not only include leaders in churches, ministries or mission work. Every Christian needs to take seriously the new challenge to use the Internet to communicate the good news for people who have not yet heard or received Jesus as Lord.

Entering into a dialogue or conversation with a person from another religion is no easy task. You will be challenged:

–    To take time getting to know and understand another human being
–    To carefully and cautiously explain how your faith impacts and governs your daily life
–    To seek counsel and prayers from Christian friends when hard questions arise
–    To understand and not judge the other person’s thoughts, ideas and faith
–    To find the right balance of respecting the other person and sharing your own faith
–    To dare to encourage or challenge your new friend to start his or her own faith journey with Jesus Christ

There are real rewards for sharing your faith with another online. Perhaps you will gain more than a new friend. Perhaps you will gain a new brother or sister in the global Christian family.

2. Human Rights Watch 
3. Aftenposten, 24 May 1998
4. Fjeldstad, Arne. 1997. Doctoral dissertation. 

Rev. Dr. Arne H. Fjeldstad is the CEO of the Media Project of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. Fjeldstad served as the theologian for the Information and Technology issue group at the Lausanne 2004 Forum for World Evangelization. He has more than thirty years of experience as a journalist, editor, journalism professor and pastor.