The Bible commands believers to give special care to strangers (those foreign to the community of which one is a part). This applies to everyone from Sunday morning church visitors to those fleeing their homelands to escape persecution or the ravages of war. We are called to remember that once we too were “strangers in a strange land,” and of course Jesus teaches that one of the highest values of the Kingdom of God is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. These directives are made to the people of God, not to secular nations, but I find it instructive when viewing the latest humanitarian refugee crisis unfolding from Syria.
Most everyone knows that for over four years Syria has been embroiled in a bloody civil war exacerbated by conflicting brands of Islamic terrorism. The primary losers have been the Syrian people, especially native Christians and Kurds. Latest estimates show up to a million deaths from this conflagration. Out of a population of roughly 23 million (almost 90% Muslim), close to half have fled from their homes. (Imagine here in the USA with a population of 330 million, some 160 million US citizens uprooted from the homes trying to find safety somewhere else.) Roughly 7-8 million have relocated to relatively safe, though often not comfortable, places within Syria, while another 4 million have fled the country to seek asylum under the protection of other nations.
Naturally, most refugees have scant resources, and are hard-pressed to travel great distances, so bordering countries tend to bear the brunt of this human tidal wave. In this case, the small countries of Lebanon and Jordan have taken in some 1.8 million Syrians between them, but now have closed their borders because their infrastructures are severely overtaxed. Turkey to the north has had an estimated 1.8 million Syrians cross its border also, but has made clear that it is not willing to shelter them for long. The Turkish prime minister recently scolded the European Union for not reaching out to take more refugees into Europe, calling them a “Christian fortress” even as thousands of needy Arabs surge across the borders into Hungary, Austria and Germany, with Turkey seeking to sweep them out of its own territory.
I’m impressed with the generosity of Germany, which recently announced its willingness to accommodate up to 500,000 refugees a year for the next few years. Other European countries have followed suit, with smaller numbers. This will most likely hasten the already rapid Islamification of Europe, with increasingly negative ramifications for the Western world. (ISIS has declared one of its strategies to be the placing of jihadi sleeper agents in the West by embedding their own terrorists within the waves of refugees to Europe and beyond.) But compassion must outweigh fear — at least that seems to be the argument of European leaders. Though Europe is now anything but a Christian powerhouse, I can’t help wondering if the remnants of a Christian worldview haven’t colored the thoughts of those westerners clamoring that Europe has a moral responsibility to care for those outsiders in need.
I’m also impressed by the fact that so many Syrians are willing to walk over a thousand miles to get to Europe, and to a world that is so different from their Middle Eastern ways. Could it be that they are attracted to a culture that has encouraged the advancement of knowledge, freedom and prosperity for the benefit of all, something they have not found in their own Muslim-dominated, highly constrictive societies?
Why is it that these refugees are flooding toward Germany, and not south to Egypt or the Arabian peninsula or east to Iran or Pakistan? Most of these refugees are Muslim. Wouldn’t they naturally want to seek shelter within the Muslim ummah (the worldwide “family of Islam”)? Certainly the trip from Damascus to most parts of the Muslim world would be a lot shorter than to Germany — to Munich, it’s roughly 1625 miles; to Berlin about 1725. Here are the distances to some key Muslim cities from Damascus:
- Medina (the revered home of Islam’s prophet) — 650 miles
- Mecca (Islam’s holiest city) — 860 miles
- Cairo — 370 miles
- Alexandria — 400 miles
- Benghazi — 975 miles
- Tripoli, Libya — 1333 miles
- Tunis — 1333 miles
- Kuwait City — 750 miles
- Manama, Bahrain — 992 miles
- Dammam, Saudi Arabia — 960 miles
- Qom, Iran — 700 miles
- Tehran — 1150 miles
- Doha, Qatar — 1075 miles
- Abu Dhabi — 1250 miles
- Dubai — 1275 miles
Why are these Muslim refugees not streaming to these more proximate, welcoming centers of Muslim civilization? I believe there are two central reasons. First, when given the forced choice of leaving their home, most Muslims find the qualities of Western life a lot more attractive than life under the rule or influence of Shariah law. They’d rather be in Europe or North America than in the Muslim world. Why not head to one of Islam’s two holiest cities (Medina or Mecca) — both less than half the distance from Damascus than Berlin is)? Or, for minority Shi’ites, why not head to the Islamic Republic of Iran, particularly to the center of Islamic study, Qom, where aspiring mullahs congregate? Surely refugees would find great compassion there among such Muslim holy leaders? Qom also is less than half as far from Damascus as Germany. But no streams of refugees are reportedly headed to Arabia or Iran. How interesting.
But the second reason is even more fascinating. The five richest oil-producing nations of the Arabian peninsula (Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE) have taken in a total of zero (!) Syrian refugees. Why? They are afraid for their safety — hidden among refugees there might be terrorists who could unsettle their regimes — so they have closed their doors to fellow Arabs and Muslims in need. Some argue that the cost of living in the Emirates, for example, is prohibitive for resettlement of refugees. So much for Arab solidarity, or for the vaunted Muslim ummah. That’s not to say they’re totally lacking in compassion. Estimates are they have donated a combined total of almost $900 million to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to help with refugee camps in those countries. Compare that, however, to Great Britain, which has already given around $1.5 billion in refugee aid, or to the USA, which has already donated almost $4.5 billion to this cause (about five times that of the Muslim Gulf nations).
I’m not sure how much of the glaring differences between the Western world and the Middle Eastern countries on this matter can be traced to their respective roots in Christianity and Islam, but I’m guessing that’s an important factor. In any case, what’s happening with Syria’s refugees is a timely reminder for those of us who call ourselves Christians that God has a special place in His heart for those homeless and vulnerable through no fault of their own. Even for us Christians here in America, to whom the Syrian refugee crisis seems so remote, we can pray for God’s mercy on those in harm’s way, and we can donate some of our wealth to groups that are doing good work on the ground in the refugee camps. A few wonderful organizations to check out, if you’re looking to contribute, are Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors without Borders, Save the Children and Compassion International.
In Hebrews 13:2 we are urged, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” May many angels, and others, experience God’s hospitality mediated through the body of Christ!