Image: REUTERS/Richard Wainwright

By Donnelly McCleland

On 3 August, Morocco’s Atlas Lionesses reached the knockout stage of the 2023 Women’s World Cup with a dramatic victory over Group leader, Colombia. The Women’s World Cup is the flagship global women’s soccer (football) event and, as such, Morocco’s meteoric rise has received extensive coverage. It became the first Arab and North African nation to participate, and defender Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a hijab in a World Cup game. It is significant since the Arab region is full of talent, yet it is one where women must often overcome cultural barriers to pursue a career in sports. Assmaah Helal, a co-founder of the Muslim Women in Sports Network, expressed confidence that the Moroccan team would “inspire more women and Muslim girls not only in football but across various sports and decision-making roles”. In recent years, there has been a major shift in perception towards women’s sports in the Arab region, where female athletes are being celebrated and are given wider platforms that are allowing them to reach and influence many across the Arab world and beyond. Similarly, the ‘door’ that sport is providing to Muslim women and girls to challenge cultural and religious norms and boundaries, could also be a ‘door’ of gospel outreach.

International sporting events, such as the Women’s World Cup, present Christians with extraordinary opportunities to share the gospel with people from countries where religious freedom is limited, and where Christians may face persecution. Of Open Doors’ World Watch List (2023) – the top 50 countries where Christians experience the most persecution – 34 are Arab and/or Muslim nations. Morocco currently sits at 29 on this list. There are around 37 million people in Morocco, but only 35,000 – 70,000 Christians (0.1%-0.19% of the population – Joshua Project). In Morocco, as in many other Muslim-majority nations, it is a criminal offence to “shake the faith of a Muslim”. However, it is not only laws against ‘proselytisation’ that pose a threat to Christians but also societal and familial pressures. These factors make it difficult to establish and sustain any form of Christian fellowship. These obstacles are accentuated for women who often do not have economic or societal independence. Thus, sports could be a growing sphere of opportunity. Such opportunities are not limited to participants but include spectators, especially in the context of host nations where there is religious freedom, such as Australia and New Zealand, the current hosts of the World Cup. These nations may be secular, but there is a well-established and active Christian presence. International sporting events are increasingly viewed as outreach opportunities, with many churches and Christian organisations engaging in various forms of evangelism. These initiatives may include sports clinics, prayer gatherings, cultural exchanges, and testimonies from athletes who openly share their faith.

Besides Morocco, this year’s World Cup includes four other nations on Open Doors’ Watch List: Nigeria (6), China (16), Colombia (22), and Vietnam (25). Opportunities to reach these nations are equally vital. However, Morocco being the first Arab/Muslim nation, is particularly special as it could indicate a new avenue to reach women in traditionally ‘closed’ nations. As believers engage with athletes and fans from diverse backgrounds, utilising these events as platforms for spreading the message of hope, love, and salvation found in Jesus Christ, may it be done with boldness and humility, trusting that God can use even a sporting event to change hearts and bring people into His Kingdom.

Please join us in prayer for the following:

  • For this international sporting event, and others, to be strategically utilised in sharing the Gospel with ‘unreached’ people
  • For sports to be a ‘door’ of opportunity to reach Muslim women in particular
  • For believers in host nations to be bold, yet humble, as they share the Good News of salvation with participants and spectators alike