The Global Refugee Crisis: A Unique Moment for the Church
By Stephan Bauman, President, World Relief
In 1944, in response to the devastation and displacement of millions of refugees caused by World War II, the people of Park Street Church in Boston resolved to forego meals and send the money they would have spent on food to what they called the “War Relief Fund.” With other churches linked through the National Association of Evangelicals joined in the effort, they collectively raised $600,000—in today’s dollars nearly $8 million—to help rebuild Europe. Over time, as that sacrificial compassion extended to serve other regions plagued by poverty and conflict, the War Relief Fund became known as the War Relief Commission and, later, World Relief.
World Relief’s roots in the local church have remained central to our mission: throughout the world, we empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. Today, as the world faces the most significant refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 50 million refugees and other forcibly displaced people worldwide, we are challenging, mobilizing, and equipping the Church to rise up in new ways to respond to this profound crisis.
Standing with the Persecuted Church
Today, in various locations throughout the world, followers of Jesus are facing persecution because of their faith in Christ. In Syria and Iraq, historic Christian communities have been decimated by ISIS and other extremist groups, threatening the existence of Christianity in regions where it has been present since the days of the first apostles: many have been killed, others kidnapped, and many have fled. When one part of Christ’s global body suffers, we all suffer (1 Cor. 12:26).
Many of our brothers and sisters who have been forced to flee their homes have found temporary safety in neighboring countries such as Jordan, which now hosts over a million refugees from Syria alone, half of them children. In many cases, these refugees are ineligible to work and struggle to meet basic human needs. The Christian community in Jordan is not large, but local churches there are standing with persecuted brothers and sisters, partnering with World Relief to provide basic necessities and to establish “child friendly spaces” to holistically meet the trauma support needs of hundreds of refugee mothers and their children.
We also stand with the Persecuted Church through the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Over the past three decades, World Relief has partnered with the U.S. State Department and thousands of local churches throughout the United States to welcome more than 250,000 individuals identified by the U.S. government as refugees—those who have fled a credible fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, national origin, or social group—and to help them to integrate into American life.
Many of those we welcome are persecuted Christians: in the past five years, for example, around 40% of the approximately 320,000 refugees admitted by the U.S. government to the United States have identified with a Christian tradition (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, etc.), more than of any other single religion. Many of those have been individuals who were particularly targeted because of their Christian faith: of 125,000 Iraqi refugees admitted since 2007, for example, more than 35% have been Christians, even though only about 5% to 6% of the total Iraqi population were Christians as of 2003.
As persecuted Christians seek refuge in our nation, how could we not welcome them in? Jesus Himself was a refugee, escaping Herod’s genocidal tyranny and fleeing to Egypt (Matt. 2:13-15). He tells us later, in one of the most explicit discussions of divine judgement in the gospels, that when we welcome a stranger who is among “the least of these my brothers and sisters,” we welcome Christ himself. When we close our hearts against them, we do so to our Lord (Matt. 25:31-46).
While we serve the Persecuted Church in the Middle East, World Relief is also urging the United States government to increase the number of refugees admitted in the upcoming year. At this unique moment in history when so many refugees globally have been forced to flee, and as U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East have committed to taking in unprecedented numbers of those seeking refuge, we have challenged the U.S. government to accept 200,000 refugees in the coming year, returning to the approximate number of refugees that the U.S. accepted in 1980. By doing so, the U.S. government through partnership with World Relief and other resettlement agencies, along with local churches, will have the opportunity to welcome many more of our persecuted brothers and sisters.
Serving All in Christ’s Name
As Christians, we have a particular concern for the Persecuted Church, but our faith also compels us to respond with compassion to all those fleeing violence and persecution, regardless of their faith. In our programs in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East, where the majority of the population are Muslims, World Relief and the local churches that we empower provide the same care and support to Muslims, Yazidis and other non-Christian religious minorities as we do to fellow Christians. As hundreds of thousands seek refuge in Europe, we are equipping local churches to respond with compassion and without discrimination. Likewise, our refugee resettlement programs throughout the United States provide services to refugees of all religious backgrounds.
We do so precisely because we are followers of Jesus, and we believe in the biblical teaching that each person is made in the Image of God and has inherent dignity and worth (Gen. 1:27). The Apostle Peter commands us to “show proper respect to everyone,” not just to fellow Christians, and we can practice Jesus’ “Golden Rule” by treating others as we would want to be treated if we were forced to flee our country, with compassion and respect (Matt. 7:12).
We are driven by Jesus’ Great Commandment, to love God and to love our neighbor; Jesus’ response to a legal scholar’s question—what we know of as the Parable of the Good Samaritan—makes explicitly clear that our “neighbor” cannot be narrowly defined to include only those of our own religious or ethnic group (Luke 10:21-37). When anyone is in need—which includes a great number of both Muslims and religious minorities right now in the Middle East—our response must be to love them as our neighbors, with compassion and mercy.
That is why we serve those of non-Christian religious traditions—whether abroad or within the United States—as an opportunity to live out the Great Commission, extending the love of Christ in tangible ways and sharing the hope of the gospel. We never do so in a coercive way, but as “an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” always shared “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15).
The reality is that, particularly in the U.S., where Christianity is the majority religion, the response of the Church to the arrival of Muslim refugees and other religious minorities will have an enormous impact on how they perceive Jesus. As Christ followers, we want to welcome and befriend refugees so that we can be “the pleasing aroma of Christ” to all (2 Cor. 2:15). We have witnessed God working in this way through decades of resettling refugees from diverse religious traditions.
To the contrary, if the response of the American church to non-Christian refugees is one of fear, misplaced suspicion, and hostility, we will effectively reinforce their negative understanding of Christianity, while being unfaithful to the biblical commands to love our neighbor, to which we are bound regardless of their faith.
While I do not understand why God allows the horrific human suffering that has forced so many to flee—and I pray that he will restrain evil and bring peace—I also trust that God has a purpose in the movement of people. We read in the book of Job that “He makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them” (Job 12:23) and Paul teaches in Acts that God does this “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27 NIV 1984). God has sovereign purposes in the migration of people, and he invites his Church—here in the U.S. and throughout the world—to join him in that mission.
Perfect Love Casts Out Fear
As passionate as we are at World Relief about the missional opportunity raised by the arrival of refugees to the United States, I am not naïve to the reality that this topic provokes fear in many Americans, including many Christians.
It is important to know that—despite some myths that have circulated quickly on the Internet—each refugee admitted to the United States undergoes a thorough vetting process to ensure both that each case meets the legal definition of a refugee (fleeing persecution for particular reasons, not those driven only by economic interests) and that they in no way present a national security or public safety threat to the United States. This thorough review—which can take many months and sometimes years—includes checks from the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and State, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Refugees undergo a more thorough security check than any other category of immigrant or visitor who comes to the United States, and, having admitted more than 3 million refugees in the past several decades, there has never been a terrorist attack successfully perpetrated on U.S. soil by an individual who was admitted to the U.S. as a refugee.
In our experience, having resettled tens of thousands of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other non-Christian refugees in partnership with local churches since the late 1970s, the vast majority of refugees are people of peace who are incredibly grateful to the United States for having received them when no other country would do so. They are, in most cases, the victims of terrorism and tyrannical governments: having lost their homes and, in many cases, friends and family members, they are the strongest opponents of extremism. While we have important theological differences with people of other religions, it is simply false, and slanderous, to imply that most people from other religious traditions are violent or intent on doing harm to the U.S. or to Christians.
As Christians, we must put into practice one of the most frequent commands of the Bible: “be not afraid.” Scripture tells us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and that must be our motivation. Those who give into fear—often based on rumors and false stereotypes—will miss an opportunity to reflect Christ’s love to individuals whom God loves, for whom he sent his Son to die. By calling for limitations on the U.S. refugee resettlement program, they may also unintentionally be turning away persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is wrong to consider refugees of other religious traditions to be enemies. The vast majority are people who love their families and are simply seeking safety. But as we empower local churches to serve refugees in the Middle East, in Europe, and in the U.S., if we end up serving and showing kindness to someone who subscribes to an ideology that guides them to want to harm us, then we will be doing exactly as our Lord instructs and modeled: He commands us to love, pray, and provide food and drink to our enemies (Matt. 5:44, Rom. 12:20), just as we were welcomed in by Christ when we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10).
Now is a unique moment for the Church. Faced with the greatest refugee crisis in seventy years, the Church—the greatest social network on the planet—has the opportunity to rise up to stand with our persecuted brothers and sisters and to extend Christ’s love and compassion to those who might otherwise never encounter him. Guided by the love of Christ, not fear, I pray we will rise during this historic moment to create a legacy marked with faith, love and humility. When generations of Syrians and Iraqis and so many others look to us, may they experience the embrace of Jesus, the comfort of his Spirit and the relentless love of God.