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Lord, open European eyes

The last reported words of William Tyndale, strangled and burned at the stake in 1536, referred to Henry VIII: ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.’ Now, immigrant-led churches may revive the Continent’s Reformation legacy—and open our eyes as well

Lord, open European eyes

An engraving of William Tyndale’s execution at Vilvoorde, Belgium (Photo 12/UIG/Getty Images; Coloring by Krieg Barrie)

VILVOORDE and ANTWERP, Belgium—The streets of Vilvoorde leading to the church are quiet on Sunday morning, the Belgian pastry shops shuttered. Churchgoers pass beneath a 16th-century bricked archway on an otherwise modern street of apartments, a cell phone store, and a corner grocery. Inside the courtyard is a sign marking the Arab Evangelical Church of Vilvoorde and another beneath it reading in Dutch, In Jezus geloven wij, or “In Jesus we believe.”

Through the doorway the sounds of children and adult conversation bounce around a room of dark wood paneling and bright chandeliers. As families settle into chairs arranged in rows, a young man steps to a front platform and begins to read Psalm 40. He prays, and the worshippers stand to sing. The setting may be rusticated European, but the Scripture reading, prayer, and singing are in Arabic. Musical accompaniment comes from a Persian drum and an oud, a short-necked stringed instrument from the Middle East similar to a lute.

Vilvoorde is a storied town, a suburb north of Brussels where authorities burned at the stake British scholar William Tyndale in 1536. The Reformation history written here, as in much of what was then part of the Netherlands, was overtaken by the Catholic resurgence of the Counter-Reformation. While the Dutch Reformed Church fueled the spread of Calvinist teaching and church life, real growth among Protestants in many parts of Western Europe today rises from other quarters—from Europe’s immigrant communities, primarily those where Islam dominates.

Middle Eastern and African congregations across Europe, their numbers buoyed by a record 1.3 million migrants in 2015, outstrip in size and vitality more traditional Protestant churches. In Amsterdam, the majority of the city’s 350 churches are immigrant-led. In Vilvoorde the Arab congregation, though small, has larger gatherings than its Protestant counterparts. While Arab and African congregations in Belgium and the Netherlands are growing, the Dutch Reformed churches are becoming museums and concert halls, their teaching far removed from Biblical orthodoxy and their numbers dwindled.

Europe in many ways is becoming “Eurabia,” with recent migration swelling the number of Muslims in Amsterdam and other cities. But while immigration is giving Islam a beachhead, some immigrants are reviving churches that had turned to sandcastles before a high tide of atheism. “We hope for revival, but mostly it comes from the immigrant communities and their charismatic churches,” says Klaas Van der Zwaag, a Dutch journalist and author of the two-volume Reformation Today (deBanier, 2017).

The Arab Evangelical congregation at Vilvoorde, at about 40 people on the Sunday morning I visited, rivals the size of the Protestant Church in Vilvoorde, an ecumenical congregation that meets less than a mile away on the site where Tyndale was burned as a heretic. It adjoins a museum dedicated to the Reformer.

The Arab congregation’s building is shabbier, adjoining what was a grain warehouse in Tyndale’s day, close to water mills. By the 19th century a Protestant church named to honor Tyndale began meeting on the site. Today’s congregation meets in what was the banquet hall. Worshippers sit in pairs or family clusters, their infants in strollers at the end of a row or napping on a father’s shoulder. One family escaped upheaval during the Arab Spring protests in Cairo; another fled Syria’s civil war. Families from Iraq and other parts of the Middle East have been in Belgium longer, a decade or more, and the Middle Easterners sometimes are joined by a handful of expat workers who know Arabic from Holland, Belgium, and the United States.

“We come from old faith communities ourselves,” explained Samir, an Egyptian who asked that only his first name be used in print. “We believe our faith in Jesus Christ can reawaken European churches built before on faith in Jesus Christ alone.”

The import of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses—posted 500 years ago this month on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in Germany—reached Vilvoorde in 1520. That also was the year Luther published further works, tracts that were written in German (not the Latin acceptable to church fathers), and disseminated via Flemish printers throughout the Low Countries. They included: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian. The first laid out the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, undermining papal authority and drawing wrath from church authorities and the Holy Roman Empire.

Mindy Belz

The sign for the Arab Evangelical Church of Vilvoorde (Mindy Belz)

While Luther worked on translating the Bible into German, Tyndale sought permission from the bishop of London to translate the New Testament into English. The bishop denied his request—such translations were illegal. The priest and Oxford-trained scholar—who spoke seven languages and was well-versed in Hebrew and Greek—traveled to Germany. There Tyndale published in 1526 his New Testament, the first English translation taken directly from the Greek and Hebrew. Smugglers promptly carried copies back to England, where church authorities began buying them up to keep them out of circulation—fueling, in effect, Tyndale’s ongoing work.

Undeterred by threats against him, the English Reformer began translation work on the Old Testament as the backlash from Catholic authorities—and public burnings of his New Testaments—increased. Tyndale only added to his troubles when he wrote a pamphlet in 1530 (The Practyse of Prelates) opposing King Henry VIII’s planned annulment from Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn.

By this time Tyndale had moved to Antwerp, where he found safe haven in the home of an English merchant. Antwerp was one of the largest cities in Europe, a thriving port, the center of Europe’s diamond trade, and home to the largest printers. Tyndale continued his Bible translation work there, and with his merchant friend’s help began smuggling Bibles back to England in quantity, hiding them in bales of cotton or barrels of food.

The Reformation well underway, Tyndale spent time not only at his books, but also serving English refugees, plus the poor living on Antwerp’s streets: “My part be not in Christ if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach.” He dined often in merchant homes, too, which led eventually to his undoing. Henry Phillips became a frequent guest at those dinners, an English ne’er-do-well Tyndale took into his confidence. In May 1535, Phillips led Tyndale out of his safe house to a waiting band of soldiers, who took him into custody. They delivered him to the Vilvoorde Castle, the state prison for the Low Countries, where he was jailed on charges of heresy.

A letter to the governor of Vilvoorde Castle in the winter of 1535 is the only known writing in Tyndale’s hand. “I suffer extremely from cold in the head,” he wrote, asking for a cap, a coat, and a patch to cover frayed leggings. “But above all,” he said, “kindly permit me to have my Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary, that I may spend my time with that study.”

Tyndale pursued his translation work until his trial in 1536. He was found guilty of heresy and hauled to the stake outside Vilvoorde Castle. Executioners bound him with an iron chain and rope around his neck. They strangled him before lighting a torch and setting fire to wood that burned his body.

Mindy Belz

Worshippers at the Arab Evangelical Church of Vilvoorde (Mindy Belz)

His dying prayer, according to historian John Foxe, was “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” It eventually came to pass. By 1539 church authorities placed copies of Tyndale’s Bible in every church in England as Reformation zeal took hold. A century later, translators for the King James Version found Tyndale’s translations the most reliable, and the newly authorized English version widely used Tyndale wording. Familiar phrasing like “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil” and “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” derived straight from Tyndale’s English Bible.

The printers of Antwerp churned out not only English Bibles but the first Dutch and French Bible translations. The noise of the presses has been silenced and heat of the furnaces used to create metal type cooled. But Plantin-Moretus Printing House—now a museum in the heart of Antwerp—displays from time to time original copies of the English and other Bibles from the Reformation, including the Tyndale Testament.

The printing house sits as it did in the 16th century, just off the main square, or Grote Markt in Flemish. There authorities in the 1520s hauled out hundreds of Luther’s books to be burned, and early Protestants responded by taking to the square in protest. The first martyrs of the Reformation, Heinrich Voes and Johann Esch, from this center were hauled to Brussels to be burned at the stake in 1523. Both were Augustinian monks belonging to the same order as Martin Luther, and Luther wrote a hymn in honor of their deaths.

In today’s Grote Markt, a fountain commemorating the legendary founding of Antwerp by a giant-slaying sailor named Brabo stands where this part of Reformation history unfolded. There’s no plaque or memorial to the tumultuous events, even though many Protestants faced gruesome deaths—some, according to Martyrs Mirror, had their mouths bolted shut so they would not praise God or utter Scripture as they died.

“Today our country is becoming very secular, so we praise the printers because they were fighting for freedom of speech,” said Veerle Groeneveld, a lifelong resident of Antwerp and communications adviser at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven. As we spoke by the main square, a group of Asian tourists joined their tour guide at the foot of the Brabo Fountain, hearing about the mythical sailor and giant but nothing about the Protestants, or about many burned at the stake in the square—among them, later on, the Bible printers who worked adjacent to it.

Art Collection 2/Alamy Photos

Willem Geets, who lived seven miles from Vilvoorde, Belgium, painted in 1883 A Martyr of the Sixteenth Century: Johanna van Santhoven, a Protestant, Led Out to Be Buried Alive. (Art Collection 2/Alamy Photos)

Followers of John Calvin built churches in the city and established a Calvinist republic in Antwerp in 1577. But the Counter-Reformation forced many Protestants to flee the city, and Catholic influence returned to dominance. By 2000 the city’s Protestant population hovered at 0.5 percent. Today Protestants represent 4.5 percent of Antwerp’s population, with the dramatic growth coming from immigrants who began arriving in number about 20 years ago.

“It’s the foreigners who are receptive to gospel teaching, where it doesn’t get through among the Flemish people,” said Groeneveld. “For so many centuries it wasn’t acceptable to be open about Protestant belief, and we do not have a strong public openness among Flemish people to talk about faith.”

Immigrant congregations meet in shops and garages, and some in actual church buildings, Groeneveld said. Antwerp’s Arab congregation meets in Bijbelhuis, or Bible House, a 40-year-old hospitality house organized and run by the Reformed Missionary Union and the United Protestant Church of Belgium.

The Arabic church began with a Bible study in 2011 with half a dozen people gathered in a circle each week. Today attendance for worship services is 60 or more people, nearly all from the Middle East or Arabic-speaking Africa.

Many church members have firsthand experience of the conflict in Iraq and Syria. They resonate with Reformation-era persecution and atrocities because they suffered under ISIS and other jihadist groups. One member, threatened repeatedly by ISIS militants, fled Iraq to Turkey, crossed the Mediterranean, and hitchhiked his way across Europe to Belgium. Pastor Hary Khano, a Syrian Christian who has spent a decade in church planting and ministry, has spent the past four years rescuing his own family members from Syria.

Threats to Khano’s family, who are from embattled Hasakah, a Christian area in northern Syria, only have increased. In Syria, ISIS militants held one of Khano’s nephews captive in his home, while a government-aligned militia jailed a brother—and a brother-in-law died of a stroke caused by the stress of bombings and threats, his family believes. Khano and his wife Janee Angel, who is American, have helped 16 family members—siblings and their spouses, nieces and nephews—gain asylum in Europe or Canada. Each journey to safety has been tortuous and traumatic.

Timothy Fadek/Redux

A church service at the Greater Love Assembly in Brussels, Belgium. Pastor Maxwell Motuanya, who immigrated from Nigeria, founded the church in 2013. (Timothy Fadek/Redux)

War also has seeded Khano’s church with new arrivals from the Middle East, and converts from Islam. Since 2015 his church has baptized a dozen Muslim converts, mostly Iraqis. “We provide training and discipleship,” Khano told me, “and God provides blessing.”

By 2000 Antwerp’s Protestant population hovered at 0.5 percent. Today Protestants represent 4.5 percent of the population, with the dramatic growth coming from immigrants.

Khano, who grew up Catholic but started attending Protestant churches in his 20s, resonates with the Reformers’ vision. As Dutch journalist Klaas van der Zwaag put it: “The message of the Reformation is saved by faith alone, without condition. It stressed harmony between works and the Holy Spirit, between faith and experience, between head and heart. It was not only about doctrine, but it was also practical, a practical Christianity.”

Van der Zwaag sees a connection between the Reformation and immigrant congregations with roots in Christian history far from Europe: “Reformation is always dynamic, its churches and institutions always renewing. Rest is a danger for the church.”

In September, Khano launched a new school with 25 students who take seminary-level courses taught in Arabic. They will meet once a month for a weekend, then do reading and home study until the next month. In five years, they will receive seminary degrees and plant new churches, Khano hopes. This month Khano’s church is hosting a “School of Christ” discipleship program for Muslims, with 50 people registered to attend.

Translating new material into Arabic, Khano told me, is a driving discipline. He spends evenings translating material for Bible studies and other classes and says he cannot turn out material fast enough for new believers who want more. His determination would please Tyndale and other fervent translators half a millennium ago.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 10/13/2017 01:45 pm

    God will keep taking Western civilization away from us until we love Him more than it.

  •  Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Fri, 11/03/2017 06:02 am

    Thank you for this wonderful article.  Now, I think that there might be hope for Christianity because of those whose bravery has been tested by terrible persecution in the countries from which they have fled.