The Pew Research Center recently released a statistical report based on fertility rates, estimating that Islam will replace Christianity as the world’s largest religious faith by the year 2070.
These demographic trends, coupled with declining church attendance and the rise of religiously unaffiliated Americans, alarm many faithful Christians who are concerned about the future of our Church. They also increase fear and distrust towards other religions and Islam in particular, and ignite political debates over whether our immigration policy should be based on religion, giving preference to Christians over Muslims. In the midst of these concerns, it is easy to overlook the steady rise of Christianity in the poorest and war-torn countries, the conversions around the world of those who risk their lives to become Christian, the secret building of underground churches despite oppression, and the visible manifestations of Christian faith in conflict zones.
The decline in church attendance and affiliation is a phenomenon limited to developed democracies in Europe and America, and it stands in stark contrast to the continuous spread of the Christian faith in sub-Saharan Africa, arguably the poorest and most neglected region of the world. This region has been a continual conflict zone for several decades because of the Great War of Africa that directly involved nine countries and affected many more, and claimed more than 5 million lives.
Yet it is precisely in these war-torn countries – where food is scarce and stability, security and health care are lacking – that Christian churches are being built, Masses and other religious services are heavily attended, and the faith is flourishing. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Christians in this region has risen over the course of the last 100 years from about 7 million to approximately 470 million – from 9 percent of the population to 57 percent – and is still rising. Most people are converting from traditional African religious beliefs, but a significant number are converts from Islam, especially in Uganda, where one-third of the people who now identify as Christian were raised Muslim.
Africa is not the only place where people are embracing Jesus in the midst of great hardship. Bangladesh, the fourth-largest Muslim nation in the world, has recently experienced Christian conversions at unprecedented levels. Its Muslim government reports the number of Christians at only 1 percent, but international human rights organizations estimate the number to be closer to 10 percent. Christian converts join mostly underground churches due to the government’s persecution. Despite tremendous hardships, poverty and constant dangers, Christian missionaries and pastors testify that tens of thousands of people have converted to Christianity in the past 12 months, and they predict that Bangladesh could become a predominantly Christian country in their lifetime.
Christian persecution and a long-term state of war, which causes traditional Christian communities in the Middle East to dwindle or disappear, is well known and rightly grieved, but the conversions despite this horrific turmoil sometimes remain unnoticed. Many refugees from the Syrian civil war and other regional conflicts are escaping to find safety and better living conditions, but others are also seeking religious freedom. As Christian converts, they could be punished with death if they remain in their home countries.
The number of new Christians in this conflict-prone region is hard to estimate, because converts often experience harassment, violence and torture from extremist Muslims, including within their own families. However, Bishop George Saliba of Beirut, Lebanon, said in a recent interview for Public Radio International that local churches have been overwhelmed by the amount of refugees seeking conversion, and that he personally baptized more than a hundred Muslims from neighboring Syria since the outbreak of the war in 2011.
The conversion of refugees fleeing conflict zones can be observed in Europe, which has been notorious for its declining church attendance and a diminishing role that religious faith plays in the political and social spheres of life among its original Christian population. Despite the fact that Christian converts do not get any advantage over Muslims in being granted asylum, both Protestant and Catholic churches have been surprised by the number of refugees seeking baptism. The Catholic Church in Austria received more than 300 applications for adult baptisms, mostly from refugees, in just the first three months of 2016, the year of the great immigration wave from the Middle Eastern conflict zones. During the same year, several Protestant churches in Germany were so overwhelmed by the number of Muslim immigrants trying to convert that they arranged baptisms to be regularly held in municipal swimming pools. An Anglican church in Liverpool, England, now reportedly has well-attended services conducted in Persian.
These Christian conversions around the world, in the midst of violence and among people fleeing war, are signs of hope for the future of our Church. They show that the Christian faith remains a powerful force in our modern world, and that it can transcend national, ethnic and even religious boundaries to provide hope and comfort to those who need it most.
Dr. Kamila Valenta is a member of St. Gabriel Church in Charlotte and a part-time professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses on ethnic conflict.