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Looking forward

By Donnelly McCleland

Amid the relentless waves of COVID-19 infections and deaths, ongoing conflicts, political instability (coups, protests and upsets) and an increase in disasters, one could easily sink into despair, were it not for the Lord’s sovereign hand and merciful intervention in our world. In this follow-up special edition of A World in Motion (AWIM) we look at five significant, ongoing stories to watch in 2022. There are already some clear indications of possible impacts to the Church and missions in these regions or situations, while others remain speculative.

China-Taiwan flashpoint, one of several

China’s air force has significantly increased the scale and frequency of missions into Taiwan’s ‘air defence identification zone’ in 2021. Their military activity, together with rapid technological advances, have raised alarm bells about China’s intentions towards Taiwan, over which it claims sovereignty. Some analysts are also convinced that China’s recent rapid expansion of its nuclear arsenal is designed to make it harder for the US (and their allies) to intervene in any conflict over Taiwan. Simultaneously, China and Russia have strengthened their political, economic, and military relations this year – despite their uneasy history – as both countries say they resent what they call growing pressure from the West. The QUAD (a strategic dialogue between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia) joint statement in March, and the formation of AUKUS – a trilateral security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – on 15 September, drew sharp criticism from China. Such agreements between various countries in the area, and much further afield, has been seen as a response to China’s actions in the South China Seas, and beyond. Growing antagonism and competition between Western nations and China has been deeply challenging for developing nations (especially those in South-East Asia) to navigate as many have economic and cultural ties with China, but also feel insecure with China’s rapidly developing military might.  The upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing in February 2022, has become another point of contention as Western nations (headed by the US) threaten a diplomatic boycott (athletes from these nations would still compete) against China’s human rights abuses – aiming specifically at China’s cracking down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, for its policies toward Tibet and Taiwan, and for detaining and abusing Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs hit back, maintaining that such an action stained the spirit of the Olympic Charter and that China would take “resolute countermeasures” to any boycott, which would ultimately impact “China-US dialogue and cooperation in important fields.” In 2022, China will continue to flex its muscles and advance its agenda, not only for its nation but also on the world stage.

From a Christian Perspective

It is no secret that the Church in China has grown tremendously despite heavy, state-authorised persecution. Many believers have paid a very heavy price in the process, but the Church has not been destroyed, though the state has tried. China’s technological advances, especially in surveillance, have recently aided security forces in their efforts to expose and root out unregistered churches across the country. There has thus been an uptick in church closures and imprisonment of believers. China’s heavy-handed approach towards Hong Kong is viewed by many analysts as a foretaste of what is to come for Taiwan and the South China Seas region. Since China is seen to have gotten away with a simple ‘slap on the wrist’ from the rest of the world, it is anticipated that China will step up its timeline for returning Taiwan to the fold, and its expansion in the South China Seas. It is therefore important for the Church in these areas to learn this lesson from Hong Kong – the West is not their ‘saviour’. Jesus said He will build His Church, and what has become clear in many nations, China included, is that it does not take democracy and freedom to guarantee church growth and development, in fact, it is often the opposite. The Church in Taiwan and beyond, should not despair as China turns its focus in their direction, just as the Lord has been faithful in building His Church in China, He can be trusted to also continue building in their midst. It is often in the crucible that the Lord crafts some of His most beautiful and durable ‘works’. But, just as the larger Body of Christ played a crucial role in strengthening the Chinese Church, through resources and prayer, it needs to do the same for Taiwan and the larger region.

Russian-Ukraine tensions and potential ramifications

There has been a recent flurry of activity in Ukraine and along its border with Russia. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has raised concerns over reports of a Russian military build-up along his country’s eastern border, parts of which were declared breakaway republics by Russian-speaking Ukrainians aligned with Moscow. But the tensions around Ukraine are not new. A similar situation in March/April this year resulted in similar accusations of a threatened invasion of Ukraine. It is important to highlight that on 24 March, before Russia’s deployment of troops, Mr Zelenskiy issued a presidential decree stating that the retaking of Crimea from Russia had become Kyiv’s official policy. Concerns over a possible invasion of Ukraine by Russia most certainly came up in discussions between Mr Putin and US President Joe Biden when they talked on Tuesday 7 December. However, as Adeline van Houtte points out in her piece for Politico, there are some very logical reasons to question this pervasive Western narrative: “Firstly, if Russia’s show of force was the prelude to an offensive, it would require far more troops and air defence — not to mention discretion, if the intention were to catch Ukraine by surprise, as was the case with Crimea.” She goes on to point out that Ukraine’s army is far stronger now than in 2014, having received weapons from the US and other NATO nations (including drones from Turkey), which would make a conflict extremely costly for Russia, both economically and in manpower. A more reasonable assumption is that Russia has concerns of their own, NATO powers have been regularly crossing Moscow’s ‘red lines’ in the region – large-scale military exercises, nuclear-armed aircraft flying just 20km from Russia’s border, and the reactivation of a US artillery unit in Germany that will reportedly carry a hypersonic missile. Russia is also eager to secure German regulators’ approval of the politically controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine. This would never happen if Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia, of course, has not helped its cause by also engaging in provocative activities which are seen as threatening to NATO-aligned nations. As several analysts have pointed out, this kind of brinkmanship might not lead to direct conflict, but the heightened tensions could result in an accidental engagement or miscalculation, thus de-escalation is critical. Russia’s recent informal defence agreement with China and formal arrangements with India, as well as re-engagement with Southeast Asia, is seen as a demonstration to Western nations that they have formidable friends.

From a Christian Perspective

Relations between the West and Russia will continue to be strained going into 2022 and most likely way beyond, but herein lies the challenge, and the opportunity, for both the Church in Russia and Ukraine. Despite being the smaller country (43.7 million compared to 142.3 million in Russia), Ukraine has seen tremendous growth among evangelicals (4.1% of the population, compared to 1.1% in Russia). The Ukrainian Church could set the spiritual tone by forgiving Russia for the deep, historical wounds, and the current animosity and uncertainty. This in turn could contribute towards what the Lord is doing among believers in Russia. Greater cooperation between churches in the two nations could see fruit in the physical realm. There are divisions in Ukraine – often along ethnic/language lines – but this is frequently due to nationalistic sentiments and influences (which some believers are also prone to). A positive outflow of the conflict in Ukraine has been greater cooperation and genuine unity between denominations, and even, in some cases, between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant churches.  The current conflict between the government in Kyiv and those seeking autonomy in the east does presents a huge challenge to the Church – in Russian-speaking regions (such as in the Donbas) Protestants and Ukrainian Orthodox are persecuted (presumed enemies); and in Ukrainian-speaking regions, Russian Orthodox are disliked or viewed with suspicion (presumed enemies). It would take a concerted effort to bridge the gap which currently separates them, but there are already those who are actively engaged in building such relationships, and meeting to pray together. We serve a God of the impossible – imagine the monumental geopolitical shift which could take place, if the Church in Ukraine and the Church in Russia join hands and focus on the spiritual battle being waged in the heavenly realms.

Conflict in Ethiopia and its regional impact

Ethiopia is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 80 ethnic groups. Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has been governed under an ethnic federal system. Ethnic federalism aims to accommodate demands for ethnic autonomy while managing inter-ethnic tensions within a state. Such forms of government regularly struggle to maintain equality and handle a multitude of expectations. Disagreements within ethnic federal systems have often led to conflict and disintegration (as with Yugoslavia), authoritarian repression (as with Ethiopia under the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, TPLF, for three decades), ethnic repression, internal displacement, and even ethnic cleansing. Some would like to frame the current conflict in Ethiopia as solely ethnically based, but this would be oversimplifying a much more complex situation. Ethnicity has certainly played a role, but the current conflict involves more importantly the issue of power and control – of a deeply strategic nation within the Horn of Africa – a region often devastated by conflict, natural disasters, and extremism. A strong and stable Ethiopia could make massive strides in the region and the continent. When Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, came to power (2018), he had a very clear idea of Ethiopia’s future – a more united, fair, independent (of external control), and free (from the shackles of the past) country. He began to make radical changes (releasing political prisoners – including those in opposition to him and his party), and bold concessions/agreements to end the two-decades-long conflict with their neighbour, Eritrea. He began to play a pivotal role in the region, assisting with the peace process in South Sudan, and later in Sudan. These incredible achievements, in a very short space of time, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. However, these were quickly forgotten and questioned by the international community when he responded militarily to a TPLF attack on federal troops. Since then, Mr Abiy and his elected government have had to battle both an insurgency (the TPLF has been joined by the ethno-nationalist Oromo Liberation Army-OLA) and a massive international propaganda campaign. There is no shortage of enemies wanting to capitalise on Ethiopia’s instability and the primary beneficiaries would be the opportunists and orchestrators of the chaos – certainly not the vast majority of Ethiopians. Similarly, elsewhere in Africa, the lords of war (led by the “father of lies”) continue to sow discord and destruction – this can be seen in the Sahel region for example, where ethnic and religious differences, and competition for resources, are fanned into brutal retribution and conflict.

From a Christian Perspective

The ancient Ethiopian Christian presence (the country was one of the first to officially adopt Christianity in about 330AD) is under tremendous threat. The Ethiopian Church (in all its representations), which represents almost 60% of the population, desperately needs the support of the larger body of Christ. It is extremely challenging for the Ethiopian Church to pursue peace-making efforts and reconciliation when there is such a temptation to choose sides (whether because of ethnicity, religious affiliation, or political leanings). It will take Godly intervention at this stage to steer Ethiopia out of this war and to avoid further atrocities and loss of life. Prime Minister Abiy is a professing follower of Christ, who carries a huge responsibility on his shoulders to lead this richly diverse nation. He too needs godly wisdom and discernment to govern righteously. A healed and united Ethiopian Church has so much to offer to its nation and the region. While in the Sahel – a Muslim-majority region where church communities are often small, scattered, and persecuted – we see a very different picture of the Church, but in equal need of prayer and support from the larger Body of Christ.

Iran nuclear ambitions and their wider geopolitical implications

All the signatories of the nuclear accord signed by Iran and world powers in 2015 say they want it restored as there is no viable alternative, but Iranian and Western definitions of a “good deal” to achieve that goal remain heavily opposed. The seventh round of talks held in Vienna ended on Friday 3 December with this divide clearly exposed. Iranian officials insist the two major texts on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear obligations that it tabled at the Vienna talks were fully in line with the nuclear deal, saying the real roadblock was the US refusal to lift sanctions. Some US officials who were present at the talks believe that even China and Russia – long-time natural allies of Iran – were taken aback at the extent to which Iran has walked back its own compromises, especially in recent times. The general feeling is that Iran’s actions do not demonstrate an attitude of a rapid return to mutual compliance with the deal. It is believed that Russia and China’s response will be critical since the current hardline Iranian government is convinced that they are in a strong enough position to walk away from the talks with the West, effectively leaving its nuclear programme unconstrained, and fund its domestic welfare agenda by trading with the east. China has not yet indicated whether they would end the import of Iranian oil, estimated at half a million barrels a day and one of the lifelines that have kept the Iranian economy afloat. Negotiations remain on a knife’s edge – what Israel has called, nuclear blackmail. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told his cabinet that he wanted the Vienna negotiations postponed until Iran halted the uranium enrichment. He said: “Iran must begin to pay a price for its violations.” There is a concern among some that an Israeli military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites (which has happened in the past) would probably end any chances of effective Russian or Chinese pressure on Iran to change its negotiating tactics. All the while, Iranians struggle under the tremendous pressure of far-reaching international sanctions. Amid the concerns over their nuclear programme, Iran continues its involvement in numerous conflict zones, from Iraq, through Syria, to Lebanon, as well as Yemen. In Africa, Iran also continues to expand its influence through ‘soft’ diplomacy in the form of education, humanitarian aid and medical assistance, while spreading its Shiite ideology.

From a Christian Perspective

The Iranian Church is a story of incredible perseverance amid tremendous pressure, mainly from the government (in the form of conservative religious leaders). More than 40 years on from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which promised peace and prosperity, Iranians instead have a legacy of bloodshed, cruelty, injustice, corruption, and economic hardship. An inestimable number are disillusioned by the religious leaders and their narrow version of Islam. Various online surveys have revealed a large proportion of the population seeking answers elsewhere, including Zoroastrianism (Iran’s oldest faith), other forms of Islam (Sunni and Sufism), and Christianity. Christianity’s startling growth in Iran has led to widespread concern among Iranian policymakers that Christianity threatens the foundation of the Islamic Republic. As a result, despite external pressure over Iran’s nuclear programme, the government’s relentless focus on eliminating the ‘existential threat’ of Christianity, continues. But state repression has not dimmed the Church’s light in Iran. The rise and fall of the nuclear deal have seen mixed fortunes for the average Iranian, and the Church. As sanctions were lifted, the economy improved and so did the lives of many, but when sanctions were reinstated, such improvements were reversed. Mounting economic and political pressure has only amplified Iranian discontent and increased their search for the truth, and freedom from oppression. An INcontext contact within Iran has stated that one can see a direct correlation between economic hardship and church growth, and the decline in church growth when sanctions were reduced in the past.  COVID-19 has also played a role as many were forced to stay home and turned to digital TV and the internet to fill their time, and there many have discovered Christ through programmes and online ministries.

2022 could be a decisive year in the COVID-19 battle

COVID-19 continues to have far-reaching impacts across the globe. Omicron is only the latest variant in an increasing line thereof, and according to scientists, will most definitely not be the last. Despite billions of dollars being spent on massive vaccine rollouts and information campaigns, millions of people remain unvaccinated due to global inequalities and conflicting messages. Next year could be a decisive year – many specialists believe the virus will fade in significance to that of an endemic disease, like flu or the common cold, and life in most of the world (particularly the wealthier nations) is likely to return to normal— a post-pandemic normal. According to the Economist’s deputy editor, Edward Carr: “By 2023, it will no longer be a life-threatening disease for most people in the developed world. It will still pose a deadly danger to billions in the poor world. But the same is, sadly, true of many other conditions. Covid will be well on the way to becoming just another disease.” Georgetown medical professor and immunologist, Dr Mark Dybul, believes there are potentially three main scenarios. Firstly, the most optimistic and least likely, it “peters out” like the Spanish flu of 1918–19. Secondly, and the strongest contender, advancements in therapies and prophylaxes will help the wealthier areas of the world, while the virus remains in poorer nations. Thirdly, and a less likely scenario than the second, is “it’s a mess for the foreseeable future everywhere because the virus will mutate so much that it will even get around therapies.” Dr Dybul believes that the technological advances are reducing the cost and difficulty of producing mRNA vaccines, which could lead to mass production around the world. If that happens, he believes there could be a massive disruption in the tremendous reliance on big global pharmaceutical companies, which could lead to a radical change in the availability of healthcare – especially for the poor. Although COVID-19 has eclipsed any other disaster/crisis in 2021, a recent UN report found that there had been a 17% increase in disasters worldwide this past year. The same report emphasised that humanitarian aid comprised a very small fraction compared to nations’ military spending.

From a Christian Perspective

COVID-19 has proven to be a major weapon in the Enemy’s arsenal to divide and distract the global Church. With each new ‘wave’ we have witnessed divided church communities, whether it be debating the virus’ origins, treatment methods, vaccines, or governments’ responses and programmes. Churches and church leaders (in numerous countries) have regularly made it into the news media, and sometimes headlines, for all the wrong reasons. Christians have, often unwittingly, perpetuated the spread of disinformation, half-truths and lies – often making the jobs of those in the medical profession and government far more difficult than they already are.  There is no escaping the impact of COVID-19, however, instead of focussing first and foremost on the central mandate of the Church – to make disciples of all nations – the Church has most certainly missed many opportunities that this worldwide pandemic has offered. There will continue to be opportunities as this pandemic progresses (especially in poorer, more vulnerable nations); and the question each believer, each church, and each church leader needs to ask is: “What would you have me [us] do, Lord, to fulfil your calling on my [our] life [lives] in this season?” It is a season fraught with challenges and uncertainties around every corner, but the Lord has promised that if we lack wisdom, we only need ask, and if we are unsure which choice to make among the multitude of options, He offers the spirit of discernment. The Church has an incredible opportunity to be His ambassadors of hope and truth, so let us be found united in our efforts to display Christ effectively to those who are seeking certainty, despite our different opinions. The UN report on disasters drew a very important conclusion, that partnering with locals was paramount to success, and in this admission, we see a vital opportunity for local churches throughout the world to make a significant contribution, in partnering with others to alleviate the suffering of millions, and bringing the love of Christ, especially as crises escalate.

In conclusion…

In Habakkuk 1:5, the Lord says to the prophet: “Look at the nations and watch — and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” As followers of Christ, let that be the spirit in which we embrace the coming year – a spirit of anticipation and readiness for what He will do in and through His Church, in our world.



Images: REUTERS/Jason Lee/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Tiksa Negeri/EU delegation handout/ Erik Romanenko