The refugee crisis in the Middle East, and now Europe, has at last caught the world’s attention. How are Christians in the West to respond?
When, over 70 years ago, an evil regime came to power in Germany, up to 38,000 people sought refuge across Europe. Within a few years, as German armies swept through neighbouring lands, the number of migrants rose, with 36,000 leaving their homeland one year and 77,000 the next.
At that time, the UK took in 10,000 children in direct response. Scores of journalists thronged to see migrants, dirty, hungry and afraid, land in Britain. Many had lost their loved ones either to war or the waves.
These were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, first in 1933 and then from surrounding European countries in 1938 and 1939, as Hitler sought to exterminate ‘the Jewish threat’. By September 1939, 282,000 Jews had left Germany, and 117,000 Austria.
From these, 95,000 Jews migrated to the US, 60,000 to Palestine, 40,000 to the UK, and 75,000 to Central and South America. About 18,000 found refuge in Japanese-occupied China.
Fast forward 70 years, and Europe is once again facing a migration crisis unlike any since the dark days of the Third Reich. Nearly 200,000 refugees have crossed EU borders one way or another, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. The majority are from Muslim minorities, or are designated as ‘Christian’. They are either fleeing civil war or the Islamic State (IS).
The media’s response has been to demonise or canonise. For example, when the Office for National Statistics revealed that net annual long-term international migration to the UK was 330,000 in March 2015 (up 94,000 from March 2014), two publications ran very different front-page stories.
The Financial Times showed a photo of migrants working in Norfolk’s celery fields helping economic growth, while The Daily Mail talked of the ‘shocking scale of immigration into Britain’.
But, in fact, those statistics related mainly to economic migrants from Romania and Bulgaria where there is no war. By contrast, up to March 2015, only 11,600 people were granted asylum in the UK: the majority from Eritrea (3,568), followed by Pakistan (2,302) and Syria (2,204). Yet, according to the UN, at least 230,000 Syrians have been killed, while more than 6.5 million have been displaced.
There are various ways to respond to this crisis. One is to say, ‘We are full, we cannot take any more’. But how can Christians pray on Sundays for the safety of Syrian or Iraqi Christians in the face of IS, and then tell them, ‘There is no room at the inn’?
Furthermore, the number of these migrants in Europe — several hundred thousand — comprises less than 0.05 per cent of Europe’s total population of 740 million.
While Germany and Austria have welcomed large batches of migrants, others have remained quiet, including France, Spain, Italy and — until recent political pressure — the UK.
Viktor Orban, Hungarian prime minister, defended the kettling of more than 1000 migrants in Budapest’s train station and the sending of hundreds to detention camps, saying, ‘We do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country. We do not like the consequences’.
Yet there was a great change of mood in Europe with the release of photos of Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who, with his brother and mother, drowned crossing from Turkey. European governments have been forced by their own citizens to talk of kindness rather than ‘quotas’.
When Iceland’s government said ‘No more’, some 12,000 citizens signed a petition forcing it to change its mind. Many offered to house migrants in their own homes. In Germany, a group set up a special website so people needing flatmates could sign up to take in a refugee, donations helping to meet the cost of the rent.
Poignantly, citizens in the tiny north German town of Oer Erkenschwick welcomed a coachload of Syrian refugees with flowers, banners and open arms. Eighty years ago this would not have been possible.
More than 500,000 Britons signed a petition asking Prime Minister David Cameron to bring in more refugees. Eventually he agreed to accept 20,000.
The Mayor of Bristol has urged families to consider giving up a room in their house to enable the city to shelter refugees. Bishop Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, said, ‘It is essential that the plight of these refugees is not belittled or ignored’. While he acknowledged the need for caution against importing ‘radical elements’, he said, ‘caution should not mean a blanket rejection of the vast majority, who are genuinely seeking safety’.
Pastor Ali McLachlan of Grace Baptist Church, West Edinburgh, has pointed to Deuteronomy 10:17-18: ‘The Lord … gives justice to the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing’.
He said, ‘Our church are all “refugees”, casting ourselves on the mercies of God in Christ, turning away from this sinful world to find salvation in the perfect country above’.
A statement from Open Doors said, ‘Last year they ran. This year they’re trapped. Displaced Christian families in Iraq can’t go home, but they can’t go anywhere else. Will you pray for them, speak out and give basic supplies?’
Steve Clifford, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, has said: ‘We want the UK to be a place of refuge, but we also want our churches to be beacons of hospitality and our homes full of warmth and welcome’. He urged congregations to pray and help organisations such as Open Doors and Tearfund provide practical assistance.
The need for both compassion and caution is clear, as the issues surrounding the crisis are complex, not least the inability of governments to distinguish properly between real and nominal Christians. But the coming months and years will see a host of new opportunities for the evangelical church in Western Europe to minister to the spiritual needs of countless displaced Muslims and nominal and real Christians.