Restoring Agency before God
By Chaden Hani
March 15 2019, marks eight years since the war in Syria began. The war was cataclysmic for the near and far. People who’d never heard of Syria would learn of its whereabouts, and a refugee crisis would become the talk of world leaders. Neighboring countries are facing intense domestic pressure for the refugees to return home, and the living conditions are becoming a push factor for a fast return.
Before a three-day EU- conference in Brussels, aid agencies say their surveys show a majority of refugees wanting to return to their country, but the Syrian government’s treatment of returning refugees includes killings, disappearances, intimidation and sometimes compulsory military service is reducing this number. Some Syrian civil society groups have expressed anger on social media at the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, for encouraging the returns process.
The topic of return has turned into a lightning rod for debate and contention between politicians, policy analysts, and rights advocates. On one hand, neighboring countries are dealing with internal problems and cannot handle the international pressure of settlement of the Syrians. On the other hand, there is a push back that return is not safe and is a violation to the international humanitarian law as well as to the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees.
The real question we should be asking is what motivation do Syrians themselves have to return, in addition to exploring our own motivations for wanting them to return, or perhaps stay. As for the Syrians, what would be their motivation to return or to stay? Is this a decision the Lebanese government or the international community should take, or should we grant them agency in deciding their own fate? Additionally, are the churches institutionally motivated to oppose return, for fear of losing the financial support that has been feeding their ministries? Such questions shake us to the very core of our personal and collective beliefs as the church, concerning especially our theology of exile and of return.
Theological Reflection and missiological Implication
Although the topic of the voluntary return of Syrian refugee is not new, it nevertheless remains an issue with which the church must deal. The prophetic voice of the church should be the guiding factor when it concerns the topic of return. Prophets in the Old Testament had the responsibility of redirecting the people back to the will of God, allowing Him to guide and rule over His people. Throughout the tragedy of the Syrian crisis, God has sustained the local church in its ministry and many of the refugees have become faithful followers of Christ.
Although the church has been doing amazing work, it must nevertheless be careful think beyond its own benefit and help the Syrian Refugees become aware of their agency before God. We must allow them to determine their own future in light of their individual and personal circumstances, rather than allowing the international community and political interests design their fate for them. At this juncture of the church’s relationship with Syrians in Lebanon, our primary role and one of the best things we might now do would be that of “restoring agency.”