by Trey Hulsey & Ibtisam
Trey helps ministries make effective, efficient decisions and connects them to needs in the Middle East and Arabian Gulf. Ibtisam is a Yemeni believer and consults for ministries working with the body of Christ in Yemen.
Yemen is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a follower of Jesus. Society is both formally and informally hostile to the gospel, and those who openly claim allegiance to Christ put themselves at risk of imprisonment, persecution and death. Despite these dangers, God is raising up His people in Yemen for Himself. New Yemeni brothers and sisters regularly join the worldwide body of believers who belong to Jesus. They are salt and light in one of the darkest places on the planet.
Yemen is located on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, sharing borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman. It is roughly similar in size to the country of Spain and is bordered by the Gulf of Aden, as well as the Red Sea. Importantly, for global trade, it sits adjacent to the Bab el‑Mandeb (the Gate of Tears), which is necessary for access to the Red Sea and ultimately the Suez Canal.
As one moves inland, Yemen’s coastal plains give way to mountains that break the country up into distinct regions. The northeast of the country is dominated by the desert known as the empty quarter, which is sparsely populated. Yemen’s largest cities, Sanaa and Taiz, lie in the west of the country, located somewhat centrally in the mountains. The port cities of Hodeidah and Aden sit on the west and south coasts respectively.
Yemen has one of the youngest populations in the world with a median age of 20 years. Its roughly 30 million residents are almost exclusively Muslim with about two thirds of these being Sunni and one third Shia. This religious distribution has been taken advantage of by outside factions to exacerbate division in the country in an ongoing civil war. This divide has created an incredibly difficult situation.
A Divided People
The country has been in a civil war since 2014. The established government is in conflict with a rebel group, the Houthis, based in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. Over the course of the war they have tended to control the capital, its surrounding regions and an important port city, Hodeidah. Although internationally recognised, the government has been largely in exile, functioning out of the Saudi capital Riyadh and at times based in the southern Yemeni port city of Aden when security is sufficient.
Throughout the course of Yemen’s civil war, the Sunni-aligned central government has been supported by other Sunni countries in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On the other side, and in support of the Shia-aligned Houthis, Iran has shown its support. The war has continually threatened to bubble over into a regional conflict. To date regional actors have been content to use proxies in Yemen and have limited open conflict to within the country. The Houthi/Iranian parties view this conflict as an opportunity to enlarge the Shia footprint in the Arabaian Peninsula and gain a geographic foothold. The Sunni-aligned government and its Saudi and Emirati allies wish to prevent this from happening.
The continuation of the civil war makes traditional avenues for economic development unlikely to succeed in the near term. The civil war itself looks unlikely to end, with each party currently believing that there is more to be gained militarily than through political compromise. Economically, Yemen is a mess. Without a functioning government and little security, freedom of movement for goods and people is far from guaranteed. Each party takes advantage of the complications of war for their own gain. Aid from international non-governmental organisations is often stolen or diverted to political allies instead of its intended recipients. The warring factions manipulate the conflict to ensure aid continues to flow into the country and then take what comes in at will. The result is that aid rarely gets to those in need via formal channels.
Yemen’s infrastructure is shambolic. Roads and utilities are not being maintained, electricity is intermittent and reliable clean water is a challenge, particularly outside the major cities. There are a number of functioning airports throughout the country but travel between cities can be problematic. The various factions operate checkpoints for security purposes and to restrict movement. Internet access is limited and expensive. Meeting basic needs like food and clean water continues to be increasingly challenging. Unemployment is incredibly high and prospects for economic development are limited. Because of the conflict and difficult circumstances, it is rare to find foreigners living in Yemen.
In the midst of the immense suffering, violence and conflict that has engulfed the country for most of the past decade, God is raising up His Church. Yemeni believers number in the thousands and are spread throughout the country. Followers of Jesus have found one another and formed communities of faith. They are actively addressing the needs of their countrymen and loving others in the name of Christ.
Followers of Jesus have found one another and formed communities of faith
In many ways the Yemeni church functions similarly to other congregations around the world. They meet regularly to hear God’s Word, worship and break bread together. However, Yemen is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to openly identify as a believer so they take precautions. It would be exceedingly risky for believers to gather in one place regularly so they host one another in their homes for corporate worship. There is a deliberateness to their gatherings, with activities planned to help engender fellowship. They recognise the importance of living with one another, and make meeting face to face a priority. Their children are encouraged to develop relationships with one another, helping them to know that they are not alone as followers of Jesus.
The threat of persecution and even death for being a Christian is very real. It is not unusual for a follower of Jesus to be imprisoned for his or her faith and believers are aware that martyrdom is a real possibility in their country. Despite the danger, Yemenis continue to answer God’s call on their lives and come to faith in Christ.
Loving Their Neighbours
Yemeni believers not only gather to worship but also recognise the immense opportunities presented by the hardships their country faces. They actively love those in need around them, in the name of Christ. This is done in a variety of ways, whether through formal aid distribution, sharing goods with families in need or personal sacrifice. Believers recognise that it helps their witness to be of value to the community and regularly seek to benefit society whether through business, commerce, trade, education or healthcare. All of these are in service to the larger, far more valuable goal of communicating the truth of the gospel to a dying world. The Yemeni church does this at great risk and cost. Despite these difficult circumstances, one of the Yemeni church’s greatest desires is to be a conduit for God’s grace to surrounding countries. The Arabian Gulf countries are all majority Muslim and few of their citizens know Christ. Yemeni believers represent the largest indigenous body of believers in the Gulf and they have a deep desire to serve their neighbours and bring the message of Christ’s love and freedom to them.
Those who desire to join what God is doing in Yemen have a variety of options. The civil war makes in-person visits difficult but working with known charities to help meet material needs is welcome. Praying is one of the most impactful things God’s people can do, asking for protection, encouragement and the Holy Spirit’s guidance as the Yemini church lives out its calling. Pray for Yemeni church leaders as they navigate meeting needs with limited resources and shepherding the sheep. Consider educating your local congregation about Yemen by inviting a speaker or giving a presentation. There are a number of Yemeni believers living abroad who would be willing to help. God’s Church continues to grow. The parts of our world that are still largely unreached, like Yemen, remain so because they are among the hardest, most difficult places for the gospel to take root. In the last decade the number of those who belong to Christ in Yemen has increased exponentially. Rejoice with our brothers and sisters as God continues to grow His Church and ask that He would bring people to Himself as He gathers His flock globally.