Refugee Crisis Meets a Crisis of Conscience

We can’t escape the images of refugees fleeing war and poverty in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Eritrea and the list goes on. Certain photos have become iconic: A baby boy’s body washed up on a Greek island; an anguished father holding his exhausted child. Some nations like Hungary have placed razor wire, others like France and Germany struggle to make room for hundreds of thousands of the displaced.

Syrian Dad and child

Then last week a terrorist cell brought carnage to Paris. 128 murdered/ executed, 350 plus wounded, a city and nation traumatized. One assailant was believed to be a Syrian.

The response of many around the world was fear. Fear that the tide of refugees contain terrorists. Fear that we need to put up barriers between ourselves and those who are different. Fear that we too are at risk.

In the United States Donald Trump has climbed to the top of Republican presidential poll waving the flag of fear. He’s called for an insurmountable wall being built along the Mexican border. He’s called for mass deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants, most from Mexico.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in the wake of the Paris attack has called for a halt to efforts to welcome Syrian refugees. He’s called the current 18 month vetting process insufficient. Nearly all Republicans and a significant number of Democrats voted with the Speaker. Over half the Governors support further restrictions.

Fear has a way of constricting the mind and the heart. Many who have voted to remove the welcome mat are people of faith. What are we to make of this?

Jesus understood the power of fear. He understood what it means to be a homeless refuge. In response he told a story whose hero is a Samaritan, an outcast. At a time when an emphasis was placed on religious orthodoxy and racial purity the Samaritan was neither. They were outcasts. Looked down upon by those in power.

In his story in Luke’s Gospel 10: 25 – 37 Jesus tells of a man beaten, robbed, stripped naked and left to die in a ditch. Along comes a religious leader who sees but chooses to walk by. Next is a political leader who also walks by.

It is the Samaritan who stops, binds up the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn. There he pays for the victims lodging and medical care. Jesus ends the story by asking the listeners: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” They replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus replied: “Go and do likewise.”

Good Samaritan pic

It is one thing to say or do the right thing when there is little cost. But as we wrestle with how to respond to the refugee crisis this isn’t easy or cost-free. My faith tradition puts it this way, ‘this is come to Jesus time’. We either believe in Jesus’ wisdom or we don’t. We either believe in the power of love or we give in to the power of fear.

This is the time when we as Jesus followers are called to push back against the fear peddlers. We are called to set aside our fears and step out in faith. We are asked to place our faith in a 2000 year old story that promises to show us the way forward. Will you walk with me?

End of Christians in the Middle East?

In 1997 a Scot named William Dalyrmple wrote a book called ‘From this Holy Mountain’. He travelled in the footsteps of a Christian monk, John Moschos, who lived in the 6th century. Moschos went on pilgrimage to Christian monasteries in what are now the modern day countries of Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. It was a time when the Christian majority was giving way to the growth of Islam.

Travelling in 1997 aided by the journal of this 6th century monk, Dalyrmple visited those same monasteries. A minority continued to flourish (particularly in Greece and Egypt), most however hung on with a few caretakers or in ruins. What he found was an uneasy coexistence between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. But what seemed inevitable given the trajectory was a time when no Christians would remain in their historic homeland.

One area where Christians were thriving in 1997 was Syria, with approx. 20% of the population being Christian. Given that Syria was ruled by a secular dictatorship of the Assad family, minority groups including Christians were paradoxically allowed freedom of religion. The Christians worried what would happen to their fragile freedom if the secular dictatorship were replaced by Islamic extremists.

Now we see an unintended consequence of the destabilizing of the Assad government (as with the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq). The vaccume of power has unleashed widespread persecution of Christians. In today’s news it was reported that 150 Assyrian Christians were kidnapped by ISSIS (Islamic State) in NE Syria.

Assyrian Christians have been a community since the first century and are referenced by the Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 5:13. They have survived persecution throughout their history including an attempted genocide by the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1915. As a people they have fled from place to place seeking freedom to worship and walk in the way of Jesus.

Assyrian Christian

Today more Assyrian Christians live outside the middle east than within their ancestral lands. Even today they speak Aramaic which was the language that Jesus was believed to have spoken. For those of us who are Christian this little known group is a living link to the earliest days of the church and to Jesus himself.

Dalyrimple in his 1997 journey found holy places venerated by both Muslims and Christians where both groups lived and worshipped together. This was particularly true around places of healing and fertility where saints were venerated. Such places of common ground had occurred since the 6th century but now are rare.

Now Islamic extremists such as ISSIS have twisted Islam to fit their message of intolerance and hatred. If left unchecked a day may arise in the foreseeable future when there is no longer a place for minorities such as Yazides, Bedouins or ancient Christian sects such as the Assyrian Church. When that day comes all of humanity will be diminished.

Join me in praying for these 150 kidnapped Assyrian Christians and for all who suffer intolerance and persecution. Let us pray and work to build bridges of understanding and hope.