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Do We Provide Shelter to Refugees?
Three weeks ago, I came across an article in Arabic by Dr Najib George Awad, Associate Professor of Christian Theology, at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut in the USA. Published in Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed on 9 July, the peg of this short piece by an academic who hails originally from Syria was the ecumenical meeting called for by Pope Francis in Bari, Italy, two days earlier that had brought together in Christian fellowship many of the the Orthodox and Catholic heads of churches in the Middle East and North Africa.

3 August   |   2018   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

In his article, Najib castigated some of the patriarchs who had participated in this meeting for their unstinting support of the Syrian regime. Those church leaders had claimed that Syria is governed by a pluralistic secular system and that the only calamitous alternative would be an extremist Islamist regime. Contrary to the opinions of the Pope himself, they had also added that Syrians are not ready to live in a democracy - almost as if they could only live under protectionist and oppressive regimes that controlled their every movement and demanded unquestioning fealty.

Najib’s article equally called upon readers to understand the human suffering of the Syrian people over long decades and more particularly of the refugees since 2011 who had lost much of their dignity and humanity. The article reminded those leaders that a servant of Christ should understand human suffering let alone express empathy for the millions of refugees and displaced human beings in Syria and the broader Levant rather that evince sympathy for regimes or defend them in PR or closed circles in an attempt to ensure their own security and well-being.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I recalled Najib’s powerful article when I read a short piece by Eno Adeogun dated 29 July on the web-pages of Premier Christian Radio. The piece stated that the Home Office had admitted that not a single Christian was among the 1,112 Syrian refugees resettled in the UK in the first three months of 2018. In fact, the four Christians out of 1,358 Syrian refugees recommended initially by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for resettlement in the UK had been rejected by the Home Office, and only Muslim refugees from the war-torn country were granted resettlement rights. It seems that the information had come to light following a freedom of information request by the Barnabas Fund - a charity that supports persecuted Christians.

This information saddened me since I would clearly wish Christians to be resettled in case they are facing any persecution in Syria or anywhere else in the Middle East-North Africa region. However, it also saddened me because it went against the grain of all my work with Christian and ecumenical organisations - from the Middle East Council of Churches to the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and later to the Armenian Orthodox as well as Catholic Churches - over many decades. Are we Christians chauvinistic and narrow-minded when it comes to our faith?

Perhaps I interpret our Christian faith somewhat differently as I try to follow the example of Jesus’ own inclusive ministry let alone his Sermon on the Mount. So instead of complaining how few Christian Syrians the UK has taken in, I would rather complain vociferously about how few Syrians overall we have taken in - no matter whether they are Christians, Sunnis, Shias, Druze or members of other communities who seek our assistance!

Of course, if the decision by the Home Office were discriminatory against Christians, I would be the first person to table my objections. Or if Christians as a numerical minority in Syria faced persecution far more than others, I would also shout out from the rooftops and opinion pages. But simply to look out for the Christians in Syria or Iraq (or elsewhere) and forget other communities that are facing critical - at times life-threatening - challenges to their lives, livelihoods and properties is wrong - craven - too. For an Armenian Christian like me who is a product of the genocide of 1915, imperfect as I am and struggling daily with my faith as I do, tribalism is not a yardstick of my faith. In fact, to care solely about Christians and ignore the neighbour who is not like me is an utter contradiction of the Gospel.

Syria’s 22 million population have been going through harrowing experiences over the past seven odd years. Half of them are refugees and internally-displaced, and many of them are facing blind alleys in their lives. Harping on about Christians alone might well come back to haunt those Christians still in Syria - in places like Damascus, Aleppo or Der Zor - when they might one day be asked to account for the behaviour of their “brothers’ and ‘sisters’ worldwide.

Let me boldly pin my colours to the mast. If Christian organisations or individuals wish to speak out solely about the persecution of Christians, whether by Islamist groups or by regimes, in a neighbourhood of the world that I know quite well, then I try to understand with a heavy heart their personal choices or ethnocentric viewpoints. But I simply cannot accept that those same people use my faith - our common faith - as a fig leaf for ignorance or even bigotry.

Otherwise, I would sadly opine that we are truly reading two quite different versions of the Gospel.

An edited version of this piece was posted earlier on the web-pages of Christianity Magazine @ChristianityMag.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2018   |   3 August


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