Yemen (MNN) — Iran’s nuclear deal with the United States is a polarizing issue. Among the things in the treaty: a lifting of international economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for a reduction of their nuclear activities.
But if Iran is behind Yemen’s Houthi insurgency, what happens to the region when the multi-billion dollar sanctions lift?
It’s the question being asked now by Open Doors USA President and CEO, David Curry. “People are concerned that this influx of money […] is going to greatly destabilize the area for Christians–for everybody in general, but Christians–the most oppressed group within that region.”
How would it destabilize the region? “What you have is growing tension added to an already big civil unrest there where you have the two sides of Islam, backed by two separate countries,” explains Curry. “Saudi Arabia is backing its faction; Iran has been backing its faction.”
Yemen, the country that begat Arab Osama bin Laden, is the “poor cousin” of the oil sheiks next door. Sitting next to Sunni Saudi Arabia, Curry says, “They have kept it dependent. Iran sees this as an opportunity to destabilize somebody who has been their enemy within the region, so it’s a proxy for the greater issues between those two countries.”
It’s the latest in a series of clashes in the Middle East since the Arab Spring in 2011, beginning in January when Shiite Houthi rebels marched into the capital and ousted Sunni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi from power. Iran supplied arms to the Houthi rebels, who belong to the Shi’a sect of Islam. Are you lost yet? The easiest way to keep track of who’s who is to remember: Sunni Islam is the Arab Muslim side, and the Shi’a sect is Persian.
Curry outlines the situation facing Yemen’s Christians. “There’s this internal struggle, but caught in the middle of it is the under-fire Christian minority there, which is being pushed underground or being pushed out of the country.” Christians are practically nonexistent in such an inhospitable environment. Unofficial statistics suggest that there are some 2,500 indigenous Christians in the nation, practicing their faith underground even as hostile tribes surround them.
What’s more, Curry believes that if Christians leave, “It will greatly destabilize the region if there is no expression of Christian faith. It’s helpful for that region to have Christians being salt and light.” How would the absence of 2500 believers have that much impact? “These are folks that are adding the peaceful part of society; they are contributing in a helpful way. I think the natural outgrowth of the teachings of Jesus creates great citizens.”
In Yemen’s grinding war, if the bullets don’t get you, disease, starvation or lack of water will. Yemen’s perpetual water shortage is worsening noticeably. Usually mission groups are there with assistance. Not this time. The Church can’t open the doors to help because there aren’t any congregations meeting above ground. Missionary activities by expatriates have led to detentions and deportation. Curry explains, “Christians haven’t been able to mobilize. They’re actually being pushed underground to a large degree. They’re already very much under pressure in Yemen. I don’t think you’re seeing the sort of response to this humanitarian crisis that you could if there was a strong, vibrant Church in Yemen.”
It’s a desperate situation made worse because no one can speak for Christians. Open Doors says this is why they’re calling for the Obama Administration to appoint a Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. An envoy is someone sent out as a messenger to represent another person or group, such as a country or business. Without one, says Curry, “They don’t have any point person leading the charge for religious freedom, and it has greatly affected the crisis here–the fact that they do not have anybody speaking out on this issue. It is the lead issue within this region (in my opinion).” [Click here to get to the petition if you want to sign it, too.]
In this case, the Special Envoy would be advocating on behalf the religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other Muslim extremist groups. Other religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere in danger of being wiped out include the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Pakistan, Baha’is in Iran, and Yazidis in Iraq.
“Pray that God raises up a strong, indigenous church in Yemen. I don’t know how that’s going to happen, but I know that God changes things,” says Curry. Pray that [believers] will find deep and sustaining joy in Christ, and that the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of many Yemeni people.