By Martin Accad
In recent months, I have received a number of invitations from the West to speak about the crisis in Syria, and particularly about the massive refugee migration into Europe. The question that keeps coming is: ‘How should the church in the West respond to the massive refugee influx?’
I am currently in Switzerland in response to such an invitation, and I thought of putting down a few practical suggestions resulting from my own reflection as well as from some conversations I’ve been having with some good friends of mine on the topic.
The first issue to address is the fear that many have about this understandably overwhelming phenomenon. And the first thing to do is to recognize the legitimacy of these fears. Something real always triggers fear. When Middle-Eastern Christians fear a violent fanatical group like ISIS, it is because Syrian and Iraqi Christians are seeing their churches burnt down and their properties confiscated. It is because they have been oppressed and beaten down to near extinction by bouts of persecution and violence against them at various points in history. To believe that Islam has consistently persecuted Christians in history would be a misread of the facts, but bouts of violence have been sufficient nearly to wipe them out. Indeed, a mere 18 months of violence on the part of ISIS has been sufficient to deal them what seems like the final blow in Iraq and Syria.
When people in Europe and the US today fear the refugees, it is because of their experience of 9/11 in New York in 2001, of the Madrid bombing in 2004, of 7/7 in London in 2005, of the Paris attacks in November 2015, all linked to Islamically-inspired terrorist ideologies. And given that the majority of Syrian refugees in Europe today are Sunni Muslims, the fear needs at least to be acknowledged. But having acknowledged it, the assumptions behind the fear need to be addressed.
I would encourage churches in the West to set-up each a focus group on the issue, whose role first of all would be to examine the claims that produce fear. The responsibility of these focus groups would then be to educate the rest of the congregation. The first thing such a group may want to do is to explore the ideological makeup of the majority of the Syrian refugees. One would have to wonder at the fact that though ISIS claims to be acting in the name of Sunni Islam, the majority of those fleeing ISIS to save their lives are themselves Sunni Muslims. That fact in itself should tell us that there is more to ISIS than some sort of ‘pure’ Sunnism as claimed by the group. That in itself is a striking testimony to the diversity that inherently exists in the way that Muslims interpret and always have interpreted their founding texts, including the Qur’an.
Once we are able to acknowledge this, we immediately get some important insight into the current psychological and emotional mindset of the Syrian refugees. Sunni Muslim refugees fleeing a murderous group claiming to be a Sunni Muslim Caliphate cannot logically have as their primary goal in fleeing into Europe to take it over by force, and to launch terrorist attacks against European societies, with the aim of establishing there an Islamic state. That simply does not make any sense! That thought alone should suffice to alleviate at least some of the fear.
But if that is not enough to alleviate everyone’s fears, then why not do the next logical thing that one should do for refugees who have run for their lives, have lost their entire livelihoods, have had their communities entirely decimated, and now find themselves before the daunting reality that their lives will never be the same again? Quite simply: offer them an alternative community; be an honorable host to strangers who have been ‘left out in the cold.’ And here is why.
Since Chancellor Angela Merkel late last summer announced Germany’s open-door policy that stunned the world, European governments who have received refugees have also increasingly provided for their material needs. They do not live in luxury, but they have a roof over their heads and food on the table. But what governments and NGO’s are rarely qualified to do is to address the psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs of the refugees. They can care for them physically, but they cannot provide them with a new community. And that, I believe, needs to be a primary role of the church.
I know of some churches in Europe and North America who have understood this unique responsibility and risen up to the challenge. They hold weekly sports days and other community-based activities. They offer friendship and psycho-emotional support to people who have lost their native nurturing communities. In Lebanon, where the government does very little to provide for the physical needs of the Syrian refugees, many churches have been filling this gap. And though I can testify that Lebanese church communities have acted mostly with astonishing integrity, taking care not to use spiritual manipulation when dispensing material care, the conflict of interest is a constant tension for both the giver and the recipient. In Europe the conflict of interest is virtually non-existent, and the opportunity for spiritual manipulation very limited. Refugees who come to church-based activities get no material benefit from doing so, and no such activities would therefore qualify as indecent proselytism. This is a good and healthy thing for the soul of the church.
In my view, the major challenge and calling today for the church in the West is to bridge the deep cultural gap between the host communities to which they belong and the refugee communities. The scandalous sexual behavior of some refugees (though mostly non-Syrians as it turned out) towards European women in some German cities during the 2015/2016 end of year celebrations is a prime manifestation of this cross-cultural challenge. Such stories are becoming common in day-to-day conversations. The realm of sexuality and gender relations is by no means the only realm of potential cultural misunderstanding, but it is significant and helpful to illustrate my point.
Male refugees from the Middle East will need to learn that when a European woman smiles to them, she is likely trying to be kind and to make them feel welcome rather than seeking a marriage proposition. They will need to learn that, if she is wearing light clothing in the summer, or not manipulatively playing hard to get, it does not mean that she is of loose sexual mores and therefore available as an object for their sexual advances. Conversely, a European woman will need to learn that when she enters too liberally into the private space of a Middle-Eastern man, albeit with the best of friendly intentions, she is likely sending the wrong signal about her intentions.
Many other social signals that mutually miscommunicate across deep cultures could be advanced in the realms of hospitality habits, dress codes, economic priorities, food, verbal and non-verbal communication, and the like. The point is that the refugee crisis has precipitated profoundly different cultures into forced social contact. I fear that for serious cultural collision to be avoided, cross-cultural education will need now to be introduced at a massive scale, targeting both refugee communities and their host communities.
Could the church play a role as a cultural bridge? We certainly have the resources in our tradition to understand the phenomenon of migration and being strangers in a foreign land. From Abraham, the itinerant Aramean, to the wandering Israelites in the desert, to Jesus’ own family fleeing the tyranny of Herod and taking refuge in Egypt, we hear Jesus’ ominous warning to the man who told him he would follow him wherever he would go: ‘Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head’ (Matthew 8:19-20).
Christians, then, are called to step out of their comfort zones for the sake of others. Our tradition teaches that it is in the desert that we encounter God, not in the luxury of the city. We can have solidarity with the refugee because our Lord himself had to flee to a foreign land for safety from a murderous ruler. And if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, he tells us that we are to find our sense of security in him, not in material things. How could we possibly not understand God’s call to his church to stand in solidarity with the foreigner, the refugee, the oppressed, and the poor?
What is the western church to do in the face of this unprecedented challenge? Dislodge unwarranted fear by seeking honest understanding. Be hospitable by offering friendship and community that addresses emotional and spiritual needs. Beware of spiritual manipulation when relating to the materially needy. Come out of the common human inclination for ethnocentricity, culture-centricity, and social-centricity. Care for the foreigner and refugee as though they were Jesus himself because you, yourself, were called to be a wandering stranger on this earth.