Summit examines plight of Christian refugees worldwide
The wisdom of Solomon is needed in addressing the current global refugee crisis. So concluded a private consultation under Chatham House Rules sponsored by the World Evangelical Alliance and Barnabas Fund in London in the first week of October.
Over twenty representatives of organisations involved in the support of refugees gathered from all five continents.
65 million people are currently forcibly displaced whether outside or inside their home nations, ranking them equal to the world’s twentieth most populous nation. Their displacement was traced to the rise of ethno-religious movements in various regions, most notably political Islam, forcing other communities often to convert or leave. To talk about the persecuted church in particular requires discussion of who is doing it.
What should such displaced people do? Accept minority status and protection under the rights of protected minorities but sacrifice their role as equal citizens? Or should they assert their rights to freedom of religion and expression and risk expulsion?
Under such pressures millions of Christians have been chased out of the Middle East. Of two million Christians in Syria, three quarters of a million have fled. Some Christian leaders encourage their communities to stay; others have left with their communities in order to continue to give spiritual and pastoral support.
While Muslims who have been caught up in these conflicts have other places to receive them in the Middle East, Christian communities have nowhere to go. They feel betrayed by Western Governments who supply arms and other materiel to Saudi Arabia who they believe is fomenting the conflict against them. Between September 2015 and 2016 the UK granted asylum to 4090 Muslims and 60 Christians from Syria (1.44%) , even though Christians are 10 per cent of the population in a situation that has been officially determined as a genocide.
In Asia, Pakistani Christians, a persecuted minority, have for long years suffered at the hands of Islamic extremism and many have now fled to Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka in search of safe refuge. However, in Bangkok, Pakistani Christians are considered as illegal immigrants and have been forced to endure severe hardships such as harsh detention and deportation.
The educated and the moneyed can escape. The poorest are forced to remain. Agencies cannot reach marginalised minorities in sectarian conflicts. For those who do escape, coming to a new country brings a set of unexpected new problems.
Help is urgently needed for host communities in Lebanon and Jordan where many Christian refugees have fled, often remaining outside camps in which they fear further persecution for their faith.
Particularly vulnerable are 40,000 Eritreans, of whom three quarters are Christian, who have fled north along the trade routes to Israel. As a perceived demographic threat, some are being held in detention centres in the Sinai desert in terrible conditions.
Russia has emerged as the protector of Christians in the Middle East. Countries ready to receive them are Brazil, which grants humanitarian visas, Australia which is leading the way, and Hungary which has a government department to deal with persecuted Christians. The refugee policy of most other governments is determined by their fear of terrorism, and in the UK by fear of the Muslim vote as evidenced by the sex grooming scandals in northern England, the Trojan Horse in Birmingham and the tardy action on hate preachers. It has been known for ISIS operatives to fake Christian allegiance in order to infiltrate refugee havens. Thus political Islam both drives minorities out and effectively closes off many havens of refuge.
The conference identified that the United Nations and governments need to recognise that outside Europe religious identity is not a lifestyle choice and is a criterion of vulnerability to be recognized in its own right. A main obstacle in advocacy work is religiously illiterate officials.
Refugee churches have a vital role in addressing this crisis. Their biblical message provides a refugee with an identity as God’s creation; churches are best placed to understand what is happening on the ground and as communities offer a structure for collaboration with leadership in place. They offer somewhere the stories of refugees can be listened to, which validates their suffering, and can also revitalize churches in their host nations.
While many ministries to refugees assume that the final goal is for their return, only a very small percentage are able or wish to. There is a desperate need for the Church to become involved in ministering to Christian refugees, and to embrace them as their brothers and sisters and part of the Body of Christ.
A shortened version of this article is in The Church of England Newspaper October 20