Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria (Part 2)

By Rupen Das

This week and last week’s posts are based on a plenary presentation made at the ACCORD Annual meeting in North Carolina on Oct. 25, 2016 by Rupen Das to the 70+ Christian US relief and development member NGOs. Presented in two parts, Dr. Das previously described two observations regarding the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria, exploring the contemporary state of the conflict as well as the conflict’s overwhelming complexity and the manner by which it has been fought simultaneously on three different fronts – via the military, the media, and the humanitarian sector.

I was asked to share my perspective on the Syrian conflict and the humanitarian crisis and where I see it going. There are times in history when because of the horrors of the events, the international community is forced to take stock. With the Syrian crisis, I sense we are approaching another such time, when we will need to ask ourselves – is there another way of doing things? However, we are not there yet, and probably won’t be for another few years, because the brutality of this conflict has not seeped into our consciousness yet.

Having shared two observations on the present crisis and where it is going, I wish to offer two additional observations and then conclude with a number of reflections. Continue reading

Reflections on the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria (Part 1)

By Rupen Das

This post is based on a plenary presentation made at the ACCORD Annual meeting in North Carolina on Oct. 25, 2016 by Rupen Das to the 70+ Christian US relief and development member NGOs. It is presented here in two parts.

I was asked to share my perspective on the Syrian conflict and the humanitarian crisis and where I see it going.

There are times in history when because of the horrors of the events, the international community is forced to take stock. In recent history, the Biafran crisis of the late 1960s was one such time, out of which Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) was formed and a new way of responding to humanitarian crises began to take shape. The Rwandan genocide was another such time. Our collective failure resulted in the Red Cross Code of Conduct and the Sphere Standards.

With the Syrian crisis, I sense we are approaching another such time, when we will need to ask ourselves – is there another way of doing things. Continue reading

Is It for the Poor to Seek Justice and Liberation?

By Rupen Das

I have been intrigued that nowhere in Scripture does God encourage or exhort the poor to seek justice. [1]

Throughout the Bible, the responsibility for social justice and care for the poor and those on the margins of life is on society as a whole, on every individual. Micah 6:8 states in no uncertain terms what God requires:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

More importantly, this is not just a challenge to only the people of God but to everyone. Right at the beginning of Micah, in verse 1:2, the prophet declares: “Hear, you people, all of you, listen, earth and all who live in it.” Continue reading

Christians as a Minority: Finding a Place in Society

By Rupen Das

As the challenge of the presence and integration of Muslim communities in Europe grows, I was reminded of something that was mentioned a number of years ago. The person said that historically Christian theology and teaching has assumed that Christians are a minority in society. Hence the teachings about being salt and light, about relating to governments that may seem hostile, people of other faiths and those who oppress you, and realizing that God allows “the wheat and the weeds” to exist side by side in society till the end of time. On the other hand, Muslim theology and teaching has assumed that Muslims are a majority and in power in their particular context. Though it took them between 300-600 years (depending on the region) to become demographically a majority in the emerging Muslim empire, there is very little in their theology about how to live as a minority without power in society. If they are minorities, it is not the ideal. Continue reading

The Local Church: A Place of Compassion in the Syrian Crisis

AKKAR

By Rupen Das

The Syrian conflict has now become a slow meat grinder with hundreds being killed every month, while families and communities across Syria are being systematically destroyed. There are no good guys in this conflict and there are no visible and viable solutions being considered.

In the “fog of war” it is very easy to miss the small signs of hope in the midst of the evil. One of these signs is the role that many local Arab churches have assumed during the Syrian crisis. As the present Syrian crisis developed and spilled into Lebanon over the past three years, the Lebanese Baptist community, officially the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD), [of which IMES as a department of the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) is a subsidiary ministry], decided to respond to the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Being a church based agency, it worked to empower local churches inside Syria and in Lebanon to reach beyond their comfort zones and social boundaries to help those in need. This is a story of reconciliation that has not yet been told.

Syria had occupied Lebanon for 20 years and every Lebanese family has stories of their homes being destroyed, family members killed, imprisoned and tortured, and the country systematically destroyed. The decision by a handful of Lebanese pastors to reach out to Syrian refugees in Lebanon meant being able to forgive the Syrians and then lead their congregations to forgive. This went against the grain of Lebanese society and to date most of these pastors face opposition for their actions from family, neighbours and others in the community. In one church, 85% of the congregation left the church because the pastor decided to help the refugees. Inside Syria, where the Protestant Churches over the centuries had become very insular, many among them decided to make their churches places of compassion for people of any faith to find help.

In the process, we are learning lessons about the role of the local church in the midst of crisis. Five such lessons are:

1. The local church is an institution in the community: Evangelicals too often focus on the church as a spiritual body that is concerned primarily with what happens after life. There is no doubt that the Church, which is the Body of Christ, is a link between physical and spiritual realities. What is often not understood is the fact that a local church is a religious institution in the community. If this is true, then it has obligations to the community in which it exists. John Inge, the Bishop of Worcester in the UK writes about a Christian theology of place. Places and community are integrally linked and together build the identity of the other. A local church exists in a specific physical and social place within a community for a purpose.

The local church, as an institution in the community, has visibility, history, credibility and relationships. It is a part of the community. Because of this, it is a natural place through which a relief project can be implemented, as long as there is no conditionality or manipulation using the aid that is being provided.

2. A local church needs to be a church and not an NGO or a social service organization: Many Christian NGOs and donors that seek to work with and through local churches unintentionally turn these churches into social service organization through their requirements and restrictions. The functions of a local church include being a worshiping community, preaching, teaching, discipling, counseling, praying and assisting those in need. Eph. 4: 12-13 describes the gifts given to the church in order “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” This is the function of a local church.

Some well-intentioned donors, because of historic precedence, require churches receiving their funding to not be involved in evangelism or any form of proselytism or in any other spiritual activity during the period when aid is being provided. This is based on a humanitarian standard called the Red Cross Code of Conduct. They feel that it would be manipulative because of the power dynamics involved between those providing the aid and the beneficiaries. There are power dynamics in every human relationship and eliminating them is not realistic or possible. However, they can be managed and their impact minimized. The issue is that there should be no conditionality to the aid as it is being provided nor should there be manipulation by those providing the aid. The local church needs to continue to be a church and not a social service agency. However, helping those in need is one of its functions among all the others.

3. The local church needs to minister to those outside its community: Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century North African historian and father of sociology wrote, “Only tribes held together by group feelings can live in the desert…” since the group ensured the survival and well-being of the individual. Yet this obligation was always limited in practice to the immediate group, family or clan and very rarely beyond it. In the Arab culture the family and the tribe take care of their own. As a result the Arab social context is very fragmented.

Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf wrote about this in his book Exclusion and Embrace. Speaking from within the context of the Balkans (which is similar to the Arab world), he noticed that during times of crisis churches excluded those who were outsiders and different as a way to protect themselves. Yet, he notes that God, who has every right to exclude us because of our wanting to be different from Him and what He created us to be, does not do so but embraces us. This then becomes the model for the church to show compassion to outsiders and not just those within the church.

4. The local church needs to partner with others within the community and beyond: As we have a seen, the local church has specific roles and functions within a community. In order to be compassionate it does not have to develop the skills and capacity to provide the full range of social services. Instead it needs to partner with other organizations and individuals within the community and beyond with similar values. Such a network would enable the church to access the needed services as and when needed while maintaining its distinctiveness within the community. 

5. The local church needs to understand its mission and mandate: The community of the followers of Christ should not only remember the last thing He said (the Great Commission Matt. 28:19-20) but also the greatest thing He said (the Great Commandment Matt. 22:36-40), to love the Lord and one’s neighbor. The Micah Declaration refers to the mission and the mandate of the Church as Integral Mission:

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world… As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task.

In the Syrian crisis, the local church as an institution in the community has enabled access to areas and to refugees and those affected by violence that would not have been possible otherwise. While many organizations are providing assistance, the local church can be a place of refuge and compassion.

The Theology of Living in the Saturdays of Life

By Rupen Das

The IMES blog is meant to be a prophetic voice from within the Arab world. It highlights issues of injustice, as well as challenging non-Arab perceptions of events in the region. Being a prophetic voice, there is often anger at the injustices that we see, and this is undergirded by a sense of sadness in understanding that this is not the way God intended the world to be. However, there is value at times in stepping back from the harsh realities of life and the sense of righteous anger and ask whether there is a theology which explains the realities of the refugee and the poor, and allows the people of God to minister to them.

Over the past several years as I have talked with Syrian refugees, I am struck by the fact that most do not wonder why God is allowing the unbearable suffering that they are enduring. All have lost their homes; many, if not most have seen members of their families killed or disappear, and now they are living in poverty and near destitution. They are terrified by their experiences. They seem to clearly understand that their suffering is caused by the war. Yet in the midst of all of that, whether they are Christian or Muslim, many are seeking a God who will comfort and deliver them. I have seen similar reactions as I have interacted with the desperately poor in other parts of the world.

I find this intriguing, as many in the western world (particularly Christians), when they go through times of trial and suffering, invariably ask the question, why is God doing this to me; why is God allowing this to happen to me?

I have wondered how much of this difference in understanding suffering and who God is has to do with one’s worldview, and for the Christians, their theology. The Creeds, which have defined our faith and set the parameters for the Church’s doctrines seem to have a blank spot when they review the key milestones of salvation. Cyril of Jerusalem writing around 350 A.D. about the role of the creeds states, “This synthesis of faith was…to present the one teaching of the faith in its totality, in which what is of greatest importance is gathered together from the Scriptures…[which] brings together in a few words the entire knowledge of the true religion which is contained in the Old and New [Testaments].”

So the “faith in its totality” that the creeds focus on is the incarnation, the Cross, the resurrection, and the ascension. They seem to imply that this is all that a Christian needs to know. They articulate the victory of Christ over evil and of a triumphant God, but are silent on what that triumph means and how we are to live and understand spiritual reality in the “in-between times” that we live in, when the Kingdom of God has come but not yet manifested in all its fullness. They don’t teach us what to believe about this present world and the reality of evil, which is only too real. They have missed the importance of the darkness and disillusionment of the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Does this exclusive focus on the victory of Christ set up expectations that His victory protects me from all evil and suffering now in the present? Maybe this is the reason for my challenges to God as to why He allows suffering in my life when supposedly He has conquered sin, suffering and death? Our scientific and technological worldview expects instant solutions to every problem we face. So if Christ has won the battle over evil and suffering and I still suffer, then maybe His victory was not real, or maybe God and the spiritual world are irrelevant to my daily life.

This focus on victory and the sense of triumphalism has little relevance to the Syrian refugee who has lost everything, or the migrant worker who is abused and treated like a slave, or the desperately poor Lebanese whose government ignores him. The Good News that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers forgiveness, and that they need to repent, has little meaning for them when they in fact feel that they have been sinned against and experience the full brunt of evil in society.

I have lately been reading Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall (The Cross in our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World) and American theologian Alan E. Lewis (Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday). Alan Lewis brings a certain poignancy to his writing as he lost his battle with cancer while writing about living in Holy Saturday and not experiencing the reality of Easter Sunday and the healing and new life promised in the Kingdom of God. He died believing in the promise of a future healing and resurrection.

On that first Good Friday the disciples had no knowledge that there was going to be an Easter Sunday, as their teacher, whom they had come to know as the Lord, died on the cross. With His death, their dreams and hopes of a better world and the coming of the Kingdom shattered. It is only later that they understood the meaning of the Cross as being the means of redemption and forgiveness of sins. That first Saturday after Good Friday was a time of desolation and mourning. It is only in this context that the unexpected, stunning, astounding, and unbelievable experience of the resurrection for the disciples on Sunday morning can be understood.

So a starting place for a theology for the global south and even parts of the Arab world is the realization that most of life is lived in the Saturdays of the salvation narrative, when dream, hopes and much of life have died. Unlike the disciples on that first Saturday who felt abandoned, God identifies Himself in Christ as being with us (Immanuel) and says that He will never leave us or forsake us. This is what the refugees, the migrant workers, and the poor understand the Good News to be, that there is a God who cares. It is only as they experience this, do they begin to dream and hope again. Unlike the disciples who did not know that there would be an Easter Sunday, we know that there is a future because of the resurrection. It is only at this point that the promises of Easter Sunday for new life and a new beginning come into focus, that one day in the social, economic and political order of society there will be justice and peace – the promise of the Kingdom of God. They look forward to the day when, “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” (Rev. 11:15)

This is not a theology of triumphalism but one of brokenness and deep humility, where out of the smoldering ashes of life God brings a new beginning.

Can Theological Education Influence Society?

By Rupen Das

Last week, ABTS hosted a conference organized by Overseas Council where one of the questions asked was: “How can the effectiveness of a theological seminary be assessed?”

It has often been assumed that seminaries train pastors to preach, teach and counsel church members and manage church affairs. Their curriculum reflects this and the “success” of the seminary is measured by whether the students were trained to be pastors with these skills and had the required doctrinal and theological knowledge. Unfortunately, what is often not assessed is whether the graduates were effective in the churches where they served and whether what they had learnt in seminary was relevant to the contexts where the churches are located.

Events over the last few years in Egypt and Lebanon and the last few weeks in Ukraine have provided new images of where the church also ministers. In Egypt, Christians and their leaders, standing together with Muslims, prayed in Tahrir Square as the revolution unfolded. In Lebanon, local churches who had never addressed social issues opened their doors to Syrian refugees and demonstrated what forgiveness and love looks like. In Ukraine, not only were Orthodox priests in their robes and carrying crucifixes seen praying in Maidan Square, but this week, all the churches united together in a whole night of fasting and prayer to thwart foreign aggression. Do seminaries prepare their graduates to be effective and relevant in a world where the reality of the Kingdom of God needs to be demonstrated (and not just preached) and to walk alongside those who are fearful of what the events mean to their safety and the future?

For a long time theological education has focused on training students on the core and essence of the Christian faith, essentially Biblical and Systematic Theology. It was believed that this, along with the skills of preaching, teaching and counseling, is all that a pastor needed to know to be effective. However, Christians are struggling to understand the relevance of their faith and spirituality in an increasingly complex and pluralistic world where moral dilemmas are pushing against boundaries that had not previously existed.

Context does not determine what theology and Truth is. However God is perceived and understood through the lenses of one’s own culture, gender, social and economic status, life experiences, season of life, political ideology, and value system. Therefore theology has to translate the truth about God into specific cultural, social and political contexts.

Listen to the voices of some theologians.

  • Daniel Migliore, formerly of Princeton Theological Seminary:

Theology must be critical reflection on the community’s faith and practice. Theology is not simply reiteration of what has been or is currently believed and practiced by a community of faith…when this responsibility for critical reflection is neglected or relegated to a merely ornamental role, the faith of the community is invariably threatened by shallowness, arrogance and ossification.

  • Karl Barth, the doyen of 20th century Protestant Reformed theologians:

Theology is an act of repentant humility…This act exists in the fact that in theology the Church seeks again and again to examine itself critically as it asks itself what it means and implies to be a Church among men.

  • Alister McGrath at Kings College London:

Christian theology is not just a set of ideas: it is about making possible a new way of seeing ourselves, others, and the world, with implications for the way in which we behave.

  • Mennonite and Anabaptist theologian Thomas Finger:

Theology is always in dialogue with its cultural contexts…including the academic sphere. Theology tests the church’s current beliefs and often revises them through conversations with its culture. Anabaptist should not only celebrate their distinctives but also recognize how preoccupation with distinctives can encourage narrowness, exclusivity and a false sense of superiority.

If theology needs to be constantly in dialogue with cultural, social and political contexts to make relevant the truths about God and the world He created, then theological seminaries need to train their students to lead the churches they will serve to repeatedly ask what does it mean and imply to be a Church among a people and in society.

It is this kind of leader that IMES’ Master of Religion (MRel) in Middle Eastern and North African Studies program seeks to develop. IMES seeks to be in dialogue with the Arab and Islamic contexts to understand what would the Gospel (the Good News) mean to people who have a very different worldview. This kind of theological education will not only proclaim Christ in ways that He will be understood but will also have a profound impact on society.

Providing Aid as Part of Christian Witness – Manipulation or Act of Mercy

This is the first post in an ongoing series: Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.

By Rupen Das

The latest Pew Research Center report states that violence and discrimination against religious groups by governments and rival faiths has reached an all-time high. The number of countries where religious minorities are abused doubled between 2007 and 2012. Open Doors’ 2014 World Watch List identifies the top 50 countries “where Christians faced the most pressure and violence.” Among the top ten are five countries in the Middle East, with Syria now ranked number 3 (deteriorating from Number 5 in 2013). While there are no accurate numbers, it is estimated that at least 600,000 Syrian Christians have fled Syria, out of a population of 2-3 million Christians in the country. The very well founded fear is that Christianity will be decimated in a country where Christians have had a presence and a witness since the time of Christ.

Is it possible to talk about having a Christian witness in places where Churches are being burnt and ransacked, and where Christians are being targeted with violence and driven from their homes? This is a question not only for Syria but also for northern Nigeria and other parts of Africa, Indonesia, India, Pakistan and numerous other places.

The story of Christianity in much of the Middle East in the last millennium has been one of survival rather than one of evangelism and growth. Bishop Kenneth Cragg, the veteran missionary who spent years in the Middle East, tells the story of Robert Curzon, the English traveler, diplomat and author, looking for ancient manuscripts for British museums. While visiting a monastery in the mountains of Lebanon in 1849, Curzon writes about a meal with the monks in the candlelit refectory. “I have been quietly dining in a monastery when shouts have been heard and shots have been fired against the stout bulwarks of the outer walls … which had but little effect in altering the monotonous cadence in which one of the brotherhood read a homily of St. Chrysostom from the pulpit … in the refectory.” While there was violence and gunfire outside the high walls of the monastery, it did not affect the life of the monks inside the walls as they continued to live and worship as if nothing had happened. The massive walls kept out the world and its violence to preserve the faith and the faithful.

It is evident that in the midst of turmoil and violence a witness to Christ in the Middle East has remained. Sometimes surviving is all that can be done. But are there other ways of being a witness to the living God in Jesus Christ in such a context?

In a conversation with an Arab Church leader a number of years ago as radical Islam was beginning to target Christian communities in the region, he said that one of the few ways left for the church in the Middle East to maintain an effective witness in an increasingly hostile context, was to reach out to the poor and demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ.

His comment reflects one of the twelve principles for Christian witness in the document entitled Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct. Principle 4 is about acts of service and justice.

Christians are called to act justly and to love tenderly (cf. Micah 6:8). They are further called to serve others and in so doing to recognize Christ in the least of their sisters and brothers (cf. Matthew 25:45). Acts of service, such as providing education, health care, relief services and acts of justice and advocacy are an integral part of witnessing to the gospel. The exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach. Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service.

Too often it is presumed that the only valid method of witnessing in a pluralistic context is through verbal proclamation of the Good News of Kingdom of God and its King Jesus Christ. Yet in the context of the Middle East, where words and rhetoric have little meaning and where hostility towards the Christian community is real, acts of love and compassion are powerful communicators.

However, there is a power relationship in any act of charity. The vulnerability of the poor can very easily be manipulated by providing assistance to ensure that they join a specific group. But as Principle 4 points out, the acts of service should not be tools for exploiting poor and vulnerable communities. There should be no conditionality in the assistance that is provided.

Caring for those who are not part of the mainstreams of society because of their brokenness and rejection is, among other things, a prophetic act. It illustrates more clearly than anything else, God’s work of caring for those who are not part of His Kingdom because of the evil that has broken them and the darkness that holds them in bondage. It is a prophetic act also because caring for the poor shows what the Kingdom of God is really like – where the weak, the vulnerable and the broken are not discarded but are valued; a place where people, regardless of who they are, find a place.

But for it to be a prophetic act, the message needs to be articulated also. How are acts of service and justice as part of being a witness different that what secular organizations such as Save the Children or Oxfam, or Islamic NGOs such as Islamic Relief do? Being compassionate and wanting justice is part of being human regardless of one’s faith or worldview and not unique to Christianity. However, acts of service and justice as part of the mission of God (Missio Dei) demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom of God. It cannot be assumed that by merely observing or experiencing acts of mercy and service that people will know the King and His Kingdom.

So what does this look like?

  • Realize that the church is not just a spiritual institution that addresses eternal issues, but that it is also an institution in the community. It has a history in the community, as well as relationships, networks and credibility. As part of the community, it has a responsibility to the families and individuals. More so, the Biblical injunction is to be salt and light in the world.
  • The verbal proclamation is not always a prepackaged presentation of the “Gospel”. Jesus fed the five thousand and then talked about being the Bread of Life. The Gospel is Good News that the Kingdom of God has come. How do those in need perceive this Good News of the Kingdom and the King? Is my presentation of the “Gospel” good news to them or is it so far removed from their reality that they cannot relate to it?
  • The church and the people of God need to reflect the transformation that the Gospel brings. In Syria many of the churches are becoming places of compassion for anyone regardless of their faith or ethnic background. They are stepping out of their comfort zones and reaching out to those who do not belong to their group or community. In Lebanon, many of the churches are demonstrating what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like through their acts of compassion as they forgive Syrians for their twenty year occupation of the country.

The verbal proclamation and the demonstration of the reality of the message cannot be separated. It is this fine balance that the 2001 Micah declaration describes:

Integral missions or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ. If we ignore the world we betray the Word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the Word of God, we have nothing to bring to the world.

Is there a limit to hospitality?

by Rupen Das

The Lebanese Interior Minister stated last week that at the current rate of Syrian refugees crossing the border into Lebanon, by the end of the year Lebanon would be host to 2 million Syrian refugees. The latest UN statistics indicate that close to 700,000 refugees have officially registered with the UN. There are at least another 100,000 who refuse to register out of fear. The estimate is that at least another half a million are from among the middle class and wealthy Syrians who have set up temporary residence in Lebanon.

Lebanon which has a population of 4.1 million Lebanese, also hosts atleast 270,000 Palestinians and unknown numbers of Iraqi and other refugees. Today in Lebanon, one in every five persons is a Syrian and this number is about to increase to one in every three people. There isn’t another country in the world that hosts such a high proportion of refugees in comparison to its population

The Syrian crisis today is believed to be the worst refugee crisis since the Rwandan genocide 19 years ago.

This is straining the already weak infrastructure of the country where electricity has been sporadic and available housing is now non-existent. The government schools that have absorbed a portion of the refugee children are now overcrowded with poor facilities and few resources. There are growing social problems with crime on the rise, a dramatic increase in the number of beggars on the streets, and a competition between the Lebanese poor and the refugees for any work at decreasing low wages just to survive.

The Lebanese who have been known for their hospitality and the quest for the good life, now resent “the usurping of their country”. Many still remember the horrors of the 20-year Syrian occupation of Lebanon.

Why is it presumed that when developed countries constantly protect their borders from illegal immigrants and only allow a limited number of refugees in, that Lebanon, which is a small country with few natural resources, would continue to play the gracious host?

Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian, describes the struggle between identity and relevance that the Church in every generation and in every country faces. The struggle is to constantly define and protect its identity while also being relevant to the needs, issues and trends in society. For a small country like Lebanon, faced with being overwhelmed with refugees, the crisis is the same as what the church faces.

Many churches in Lebanon have followed the Biblical mandates of being hospitable to the foreigner in their midst and caring for those who are vulnerable, as have numerous local NGOs and other religious institutions. But many Lebanese in the churches are wondering at the cost it is to their country and national identity.

Can Lebanon refuse to be abused by the international community that expects it to absorb the staggering numbers of refugee resulting from their own inability to resolve the Syrian crisis?

Is there a limit to hospitality?

A country is not a community of faith. National agendas in the international arena have a different dynamic. Regardless of statements by political leaders, countries rarely respond to a humanitarian crisis purely based on the humanitarian imperative. Self-interest and geopolitical considerations are a major part of how a country responds. This then becomes the lens through which society makes sense of the crisis, which unfortunately ends up influencing its values.

The Biblical image of a community that follows Christ is that of salt and light. Salt is a preservative. Christ wants His followers to be salt in this world and prevent its moral decay. He also wants them to be a light in the midst of the darkness – a light that reveals what God and His Kingdom are like. Hospitality, compassion and mercy are fundamental values of this Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God is counter-intuitive and counter cultural. When hospitality and compassion are restricted for social and political reasons, the church needs to be a sign – a living manifestation of a community with a different set of values, where no one is excluded, the stranger is welcomed, and the individual is valued.

Saving Syria

By Rupen Das

The Middle East Conference last week at ABTS focused on the Christian and Islamic perspectives on human rights. It not only explored the theological and scriptural foundations of each, but also the implications for the universalization of rights within a region that is undergoing seismic shifts.

On the margins of the conference was another meeting of individuals and organizations that have been involved in responding to the Syrian crisis. Their concern was the survival of Christians in the midst of the bloodiest conflict being waged in the world today. All the discussions at the conference – such as protection of individuals and communities, the impact of Islamization of society on minority groups, and the very basic human right for food and shelter – were very relevant to what continues to unfold in Syria.

The Syrian Christians, who make up about 10% of the overall Syrian population, are a mixture of Greek and Armenian Orthodox (who are the majority within the 10%), Catholics, and various Protestant groups, including Presbyterians, Baptists, Nazarenes, Christian Missionary Alliance and others. Christianity has very deep historical roots in Syria with some of the oldest churches and monasteries in the world in Wadi Nasara (Valley of the Nazarenes). The Christians of Syria lately have enjoyed relative freedom under the present government, as have other minority groups in the country. But there have always been questions as to whether the Christians were aligned politically with regime, or were supporters because of the freedoms they enjoyed. The distinction is important.

As the crisis in Syria has evolved from a genuine desire for greater freedom into a civil war, the Syrian Christians find themselves in a very uncomfortable position. A few Christian groups have sided with some of the more moderate elements of the opposition, believing in change and revolution, while others have strengthened their support for the regime in power in order to ensure their ongoing protection. Their very real fear is that radical and extremist groups, who are now the strongest and best armed within the opposition, have an Islamic vision for Syria, with little tolerance for minority groups and their religions.

When the conflict started in March 2011, the Christians were perceived by some within Syria as being on the side of the regime. However, the resulting attacks on Christian villages and key leaders were interpreted in the West as being evidence of persecution. While there definitely were individual cases of religious persecution during that time, the attacks were based on political alignment rather than on a person’s faith.

This however has now changed with the growing influence of radical and extremist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and their allies. There is documented evidence that churches have been desecrated and destroyed, that some clergy have been killed, two bishops have been kidnapped, and others have been intimidated. There is evidence of Christian villages having been destroyed, and of Christians having been forced to flee.

It would be very easy for the global Christian community to denounce these atrocities and demand that their politicians exert international pressure to stop the destruction of the Christian community in Syria, as happened after the US led invasion of Iraq.

Interestingly, Syrian Christian leaders, while very concerned about their own people, see the issues very differently.

  • They do not want the focus of the international community to be only on the minorities within Syria, especially the Christians. They see themselves as Syrians, and all Syrians have the right to demand that the international community do everything possible to end the bloodshed and protect all Syrian citizens. Focusing inadvertently only on the Christians in Syria, heightens the local perceptions that the West is only concerned about the Christians and not the rest of the civilians, especially if they are Muslim.
  • They reflect the feelings of the Christians who say that they want to stay in Syria. They fear the decimation of the Christian community in Syria. The Christians, just as other Syrians, have lost their jobs, their homes, and access to basic services such as health and education. Increasing numbers are refugees in the neighbouring countries or are displaced within Syria. However, many have said that they would stay in Syria, in their ancestral communities, if they could only get enough food and medical help. Unfortunately, the whole response to the Syrian crisis is under funded and every agency and NGO does not have sufficient funds to address the enormous scale of the needs.
  • They feel that Western governments do not understand the crisis and have reduced the conflict to a very simplistic fight of good versus evil. Both sides in the conflict are already being armed by foreign governments that are not interested in what is good for the people of Syria, but for their own geostrategic advantages. So the European and American decision to arm the opposition further only adds fuel to the fire, does not level the playing field, and will only prolong the conflict. There are no innocent parties in this conflict and everyone has blood on their hands.

The global Church has lost its moral voice in the Syrian conflict and has chosen to remain silent. However, silence implies complicity. While the conflict is military and the solutions political, the Church has a role:

1. The global Church needs to rally prayer for peace in Syria and Lebanon. Jesus asked us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…Deliver us from evil”. This is not just a promise for a future age but a prayer for now.

2. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to advocate for protection of all Syrian civilians, regardless of religion. The warring parties and all their supporting foreign governments have ceased to abide by the Geneva Conventions and the rules of war that limit violence and protect civilians.

3. The global Church needs to lobby their governments to provide more humanitarian aid to the organizations responding to the crisis, while encouraging their own members to give generously.

Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy. Deus Misereatur – May God have mercy on us.