Events in the Middle East during 2014, and now in Paris at the start of 2015, suggest that militant Islamism is on the move. At the same time it often seems that the persecution of Christians is intensifying throughout the Muslim world.
The newly released World Watch List from the Open Doors organization, ranking the 50 countries where persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe, shows that fully 35 of them – including eight of the worst 10 – are Muslim nations.
Yet Christians need to be aware that not all Muslim countries persecute Christians.
Take the West African nation of Benin. It is one of 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, the body which describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world.”
Benin’s president, Boni Yayi, was born into a Muslim family. But he is now a devout evangelical Christian. He worships at his local Pentecostal church, where he sometimes also preaches the sermon, and has expressed a desire to “evangelize the world” when his presidential term ends in 2016.
In fact, some Muslim nations are as nervous about the advance of extremist Islamism as are Christians
Senegal, also in West Africa, is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet, in the words of the Operation World prayer guide, “enjoys religious freedom and is remarkably tolerant toward other faiths – a point of pride for Senegalese.” It is noteworthy for its Mouride Brotherhood order of Sufi Islam, which stresses the importance of discipline and hard work.
However, the Operation World guide adds ominously: “Aggressive Islamist groups, funded by Saudi Arabia and Libya, are making inroads and threaten the tolerant status quo.”
This helps explain a remarkable outreach by Senegal – towards Israel. Just last month a new high-tech drip-irrigated vegetable farm was inaugurated in the country, an Israeli initiative that came about after a request to the Israeli Embassy from the First Lady of Senegal.
A few weeks earlier six senior imams from Senegal had toured Israel, accompanied by members of the Senegalese media. They met the Israeli president and local rabbis, and visited the Yad Vashem holocaust museum and the Western Wall.
These are small steps, but they are also brave ones, as they have sparked criticism from some fellow Muslims. Yet Senegal’s political and religious leaders have seen what happened in neighboring Mali, where extremist Islamists known as AQIM – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – overran large parts of the country in 2012.
So if there is any good coming from the advance of Islamist extremism it is that it forces countries and people to take sides. It could mean a growing openness among some Muslim countries towards working with other faiths, along with reduced levels of persecution for Christians. This is certainly something for Christians to pray about.