An Overview of the Middle East/North Africa

The Middle East/North Africa region is comprised of the United Nation’s Western Asia and North Africa regions, stretching from Iraq to the Atlantic Ocean. North Africa's seven countries are full of sand, oil and little water. Most have petroleum and natural gas reserves, but not in large amounts. All are water-stressed and none are completely self-sufficient in food. Some smaller amounts of minerals can be found, but natural resources are generally scarce. All have serious resource management problems. The countries of Western Asia (east of the Red Sea) have more significant resources, but water stress remains a problem.

This region has 368 million people; this number is expected to grow to 555 million by 2025. Well over half of the people live in dense, urban centers around limited resources (North Africa, for example, has over 160 megacities with one million residents or more), but many nomadic groups continue to drift through the rural areas and deserts. A third (nearly 100 million) are children under the age of fifteen (many of the countries have up to fifty percent of children under the age of fifteen).

The economies of the region are mixed: some suffer abject poverty, some are very wealthy and a few are managing their wealth well. Much of the wealth is found in petrodollars, and with the rising cost of crude oil, the treasuries of these nations are enjoying a bubble of wealth. This comes with a catch, however. While oil is unlikely to run out soon, it will probably not last this century. By 2050, much of the oil wealth could well be gone. Navigating this transition will be the challenge of the next generation. States like Qatar have transitioned into diversified economies centered on banking, entertainment and media. Others, like Azerbaijan, are pouring money into their military. The transition will be most difficult for Africa: Northern Africa accounts for over forty percent of the continent's total Gross National Product (GNP), but much of the oil money does not translate into jobs and economic improvement and there are few resources outside the oil sector. Widespread unemployment has led to civil unrest and could again in the future.

Most of the governments are stable; however, most are also highly controlling or dictatorial. Many have very small vestiges of democracy, although some (particularly the smaller nations) are more liberal than others. Yet beneath the dictatorial surface are very complicated political climates. For example, the current president of Iran has certainly disturbed international relations, but in reality his political power at home is complicated and limited.

The concentration of religious fervor, oil, lack of water and human rights abuses together make this region a powderkeg waiting for a match. 

Since 1950, over a dozen serious wars have been fought in this region. Algeria's now subsiding civil war included bloody massacres of civilians. Morocco annexed Western Sahara in the 1970s and shows no sign of giving up on its occupation. Sudan's 40-year civil war has been one of the worst in Africa, and has spilled over into every country on its borders. Egypt has battled and continues to struggle with fundamentalist extremism. Future wars are almost certain. The concentration of religious fervor, oil, lack of water and human rights abuses together make this region a powderkeg waiting for a match.

Of special mention, of course, is the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The battles, wars and political machinations involved consume countless headlines and articles in the press and books worldwide, and this article cannot do it justice in the space allotted. However, Christians should be careful not to assume an automatic pro-Israel/anti-Arab stance. The situation is complex and neither side is innocent. The courageous position of Brother Andrew, who regularly labors to befriend and minister to Palestinians and had the opportunity to speak to the Palestinian leadership on several occasions, has been a particular model for many Christians.

Christianity in the Middle East/North Africa
Christianity itself has had a long history in this region. Tradition says the disciple Mark brought the gospel to North Africa, where it spread west through Tunisia and south through Ethiopia. Centers of Christian learning were found in Carthage (modern Tunisia), Hippo (Libya) and Alexandria (Egypt). More than eighty bishops attended the Council of Carthage in 256 AD, and some Berber tribes were converted en masse. St. Augustine, Tertullian and Origen all lived and ministered in North Africa. Yet, the Church declined from its majority position, weakened by the Gnostic controversies, Vandal invasions and having struggled with the conquering Byzantine empire.

When the Muslims arrived in the early seventh century, some Christians welcomed them as allies against the Byzantines. The Muslims treated the conquered Christians leniently, but eventually those who refused to convert to Islam were economically penalized. The Muslim governments imposed a tax and barred Christians from positions of power. Within a few generations, many felt it too expensive to maintain a Christian identity. Divided and quarrelling amongst themselves, the Church could not persuade others of the truth of its message. Falling out of fashion, it withered by the wayside.

Western Asia, on the other hand, was heavily evangelized and Christianized during the first few centuries after Christ, and the gospel traveled east through the region to India and China. Even today, strong Christian minorities from these early churches remain in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq among other states.

Today Islam is the dominant faith; Christians are, however, found in very small numbers. Throughout North Africa Christianity is declining (except in Tunisia); mostly, this is because believers are primarily found among the migrant workers, and their numbers rise and fall with the changes in the labor pool. There are two exceptions: Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church and Sudan's southern tribes, both of which are made up heavily of local believers. In Western Asia, Christianity is growing in Armenia, Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, but still represents very small numbers in each place.

Bringing the gospel into this environment will require long-term commitments, significant risk, substantial resource investments and solutions to thorny problems that continue to vex the Church.

While the number of Christians is growing, in most places, they are not growing fast enough. There are significant restrictions and penalties for evangelism and conversion in most of the countries. Saudi Arabia is most notorious for this, but it is by no means alone. Israel, too, has been quite restrictive and harsh, particularly in its treatment of Messianic Jews. Ironically, Libya and Iraq have been two of the more open countries in the past.

Christians make up a very small percentage of the region; most believers are found amongst Orthodox and Catholic majority nations in the north and the migrant workers of the south.

Nearly all of the governments in the region are secular, not religious, and are in fact moderately open to Christian workers. However, overall religious liberty is severely curtailed. This is often simply to maintain governmental control. Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have also harshly suppressed Islamic fundamentalists. However, Muslims are not permitted to convert to Christianity (apostasize); those who do face fearful economic, social and personal penalties. Christians are typically not accorded the same rights as other citizens—new churches must be approved and house churches are generally illegal. There have been instances of Christian girls being kidnapped, forced to marry a Muslim and then declared Muslim themselves. Often this is not reversible. Sudan's war has religious overtones and is the worst for such abuses, which have also included genocide and enslavement. States like Saudi Arabia and Iran treat Christians with extreme harshness, expelling westerners and imprisoning and often torturing and killing non-Western Christian leaders. Filipinos particularly have suffered. Most of the population in the Middle East has little or no access to the gospel.

The rising generation will benefit from increasing oil revenues; however, the probability of soon losing those same revenues and the continued darkening of international relations are also of great concern. Debate over the future of each country will sharpen, with those advocating Islamic government making their voice heard ever more loudly. Economic depression is possible. Bringing the gospel into this environment will require long-term commitments, significant risk, substantial resource investments and solutions to thorny problems that continue to vex the Church.

Name P'00   P'25 C '00   %  C '25  %  75-00  00-25  Issues affecting the future
Algeria  30.5  42.9  0.1  0%  0.1  0%  +-  +- Restictions, unrest, the future of former rebels
Armenia  3.1  2.9  2.5  82%  2.6  89%  ++  -+ Politically stable, conflict with Azerbaijan, light restrictions, poverty
Azerbaijan  8.1  9.6  0.2  3%  0.2  2%  +-  +- Poverty, oil wealth, corruption, unstable government, light restrictions
Bahrain  0.7  1.0  0.1  9%  0.1  13%  ++  ++ Stable government, moderate restrictions, effective ministry, migrants
Cyprus  0.8  1.0  0.7  94%  1.0  95%  +-  ++ Stable, conflict with North, key Christian base, work monitored
Egypt  67.3  101.1  10.1  15%  13.7  14%  +-  +- Moderate restrictions, water, economy, fundamentalism, Islam
Georgia  4.7  3.9  2.9  62%  2.6  66%  -+  -+ Wars, economic development, light restrictions
Iraq  25.1  44.7  0.7  3%  1.2  3%  +-  +- Reconstruction, unrest, moderate restrictions
Israel  6.1  8.7  0.2  3%  0.2  3%  ++  +- Peace process, moderate restrictions, threat of anti-conversion
Jordan  5.0  8.1  0.2  3%  0.2  2%  +-  +- Poverty, moderate restrictions, Palestinian refugees
Kuwait  2.2  4.0  0.2  10%  0.4  11%  ++  ++ Many migrant workers, oil-based economy, moderate restrictions
Lebanon  3.4  4.3  1.2  37%  1.6  38%  +-  ++ Political instability, debt, conflict with Israel, religious freedom
Libya  5.3  8.0  0.2  3%  0.2  3%  +-  ++ Moderate restrictions, oil, unemployment, political isolation
Morocco  29.2  40.3  0.2  1%  0.2  0%  +-  +- Moderate restrictions, Western Sahara, reforms, fundamentalism
Oman  2.4  3.8  0.1  3%  0.3  7%  ++  ++ Stable, liberal government, developed economy, moderate restrictions
Palestine  3.2  6.4  0.1  3%  0.1  2%  +-  +- Peace process, political and economic development, poverty
Qatar  0.6  1.1  0.1  11%  0.1  8%  ++  +- Liberalization, materialism, light restrictions
Sahara  0.3  0.7  0.0  0%  0.0  0%  +-  +- Moderate restrictions, independence from Morocco
Saudi Arabia  21.5  37.2  1.1  5%  1.9  5%  ++  ++ Oil wealth management, reforms, severe restrictions, poverty
Sudan  32.9  51.0  5.3  16%  8.2  16%  ++  +- Heavy restrictions, AIDS, war, Islam, independence
Syria  16.8  28.1  0.9  5%  1.2  4%  +-  +- Water stress, Israeli conflict, political control, moderate restrictions
Tunisia  9.6  12.0  0.0  1%  0.0  0%  +-  +- Moderate restrictions, liberalization, fundamentalism
Turkey  68.2  90.6  0.3  0%  0.2  0%  +-  +- Cultural renaissance, political tensions, moderate restrictions
United Arab Emirates  3.2  6.7  0.3  10%  0.4  7%  ++  +- Massive economic development, moderate restrictions

P’00 – Population, AD 2000
P’25 – Population, AD2025
C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population)
C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population)
75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country.
00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025
Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].