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?”
The first issue to address is the fear that many have about this understandably overwhelming phenomenon.
The legitimacy of these fears must be recognized. 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 burned 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 U.S. today fear 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.
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.
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.
I would encourage churches in the West to set up a focus group on the issue to examine the claims that produce fear, explore the ideological makeup of the majority of Syrian refugees and then to educate their congregations.
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.
There is more to ISIS than some sort of “pure” Sunnism as they claim. It 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 Quran.
What would be the next logical thing to 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?
Offer them an alternative community. Be an honorable host to strangers who have been “left out in the cold.”
Since Chancellor Angela Merkel announced Germany’s open-door policy, 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 NGOs 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. That 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.
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.
They have acted mostly with astonishing integrity, taking care not to use spiritual manipulation when dispensing material care. Yet, the conflict of interest is a constant tension for both the giver and the recipient.
In Europe, this tension is virtually nonexistent, 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.
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 realm of sexuality and gender relations illustrates my point.
Male refugees from the Middle East will need to learn that when a European woman smiles at them, she is likely trying to be kind and to make them feel welcome rather than seeking a marriage proposition.
European women will need to learn that when they enter too liberally into the private space of a Middle-Eastern man, albeit with the best of friendly intentions, they are likely sending the wrong signal about their intentions.
Other social signals that mutually miscommunicate across cultures are found in hospitality habits, dress codes, economic priorities, food, verbal and nonverbal communication and the like.
The refugee crisis has precipitated profoundly different cultures into forced social contact.
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 a would-be follower: “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 are called to step out of their comfort zones for the sake of others. 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?
The Western church can respond in five ways:
1. Dislodge unwarranted fear by seeking honest understanding.
2. Be hospitable by offering friendship and community that addresses emotional and spiritual needs.
3. Beware of spiritual manipulation when relating to the materially needy.
4. Come out of the common human inclination for ethnocentricity, culture-centricity and social-centricity.
5. Care for the foreigner and refugee as though they were Jesus because we are called to be wandering strangers on this earth.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.