October 6, 2015

Ashley al-Saliby

BEIRUT:  Sometimes fear closes our hearts to outstretched hands, and Dr. Nabil Costa, Executive Director of MEBO’s partner ministries in Lebanon, understands this dynamic well.  For several years now he has led Lebanese Christian ministries during an influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees in a small country with a total population of less than 5 million. [1] Knowing real questions and concerns abound among the population of host nations, he wrote recently, “Will they [refugees] change your way of life and culture? Or take your homes, jobs or benefits? What if some are economic migrants? Could generosity compromise national security? Could religious freedom also be at risk? I understand these concerns. For four years in my home country of Lebanon, we have faced these fears, lived through these experiences and are still struggling with these questions.” [2] Dr. Costa has had a unique perspective from which to watch Lebanese Christians wrestle with these concerns and then arrive at an important, compassionate conclusion. “A quarter of our [country’s] population is now Syrian refugees. We are struggling to ensure that they get food, accommodation and schooling. At first, Christians in Lebanon were afraid of helping the fleeing Syrians. A contentious history between the two nations is the reason for the animosity. We were afraid of helping Muslims. We soon realized that most refugees are innocent people who were living in peace and have nothing to do with the conflict.”

Lebanese Christian Leaders Urge Churches in the West to Choose Faithfulness, Not Fear

A neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, a country where approximately 1/4 of the population is now refugees from Syria. (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

Their response came down to a simple question of faithfulness to Christ: “As Christians, we couldn’t look the other way while they suffered. We couldn’t follow Jesus and ignore the plight of desperate refugees. So we have overcome our fears and shared the love of Christ through practical action like providing food, bedding, heaters and schooling for young children. It has not been easy, but God has broken down barriers between communities and encouraged both Christians and Muslims to see each other in a more compassionate light.

One Lebanese leader who is effectively shepherding his congregation to serve Syrian refugees wrote an anonymous letter to European pastors from “a burdened pastor in the Middle East.” His letter demonstrates that shift to which Dr. Costa is referring. “Families arriving to your seashores are broken, wounded and needy,” he writes. And, as one who has now spent several years interacting daily with the populations many in the West fear, he states, “Muslims are not our enemies. They are our beloved brothers in humanity. They are generous in hospitality, merciful to the poor, and emotionally tied to their families and communities.” His charge to the pastors to whom he is writing is clear. “History will witness one day that God in His wisdom has sent to you the hungry to give him meat, the thirsty to give him a drink, the stranger to take him in and the naked to clothe him. How will you respond? You have a wonderful opportunity. I beg you to open your eyes before it becomes too late.”

As one seasoned in ministry to refugees offering practical advice to those who are embarking on it for the first time, this local Lebanese pastor exhorts, “Build relationships with them, one family at a time” and offers practical advice for humbly breaking cultural and language barriers. He also wisely observes this collision of cultures brought about by the refugee crisis as a uniquely valuable opportunity for peacemaking and bridge building. Referring to the impression of Christianity that many Muslims have formed over centuries of interactions and through modern exposure to Western media, he points to an opportunity to represent Christ faithfully through a loving response by His Church. “Let them see the real face of Christianity,” he urges.

Dr. Costa senses a similar opportunity. “When historians look back on 2015, it likely will be remembered as the year the impact of the war in Syria was finally felt in Europe.” His exhortation rings with the authority of one who is already navigating the journey faithfully. “How Europe and the church respond to the refugee crisis will not only have an impact today, but also on the future of Muslims in Europe and in the Middle East. It is time for European Christians to be visionary, standing up for what Christ has taught us and showing his love to all that need it. To Christians in Europe already engaged in helping refugees, thank you. To those yet to get involved, I encourage you to do so. History will remember those Christians who had a new vision and made a paradigm shift on applying “love your neighbor,” not only talking about it. Be the Good Samaritan that refugees desperately need. It will be a challenge but it will also be a blessing.”

Syrian refugee women waiting to receive free medical services from a church-based ministry in Northern Lebanon (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

Syrian refugee women waiting to receive free medical services from a church-based ministry in Northern Lebanon (Photo: Ashley al-Saliby)

The Syrian refugee crisis and the large numbers filling headlines are made up of faces and families, of dark brown or soft hazel eyes, of traumatic memories and horrors most of us haven’t had to experience, and of people who are simultaneously so resilient and yet so fragile because of the brutality they’ve witnessed and escaped. They represent a variety of religious sects, but they’re human beings, our neighbors. Despite rapidly spreading rumors, 51.1% of Syrian refugees are children 17 or younger. Only 23.5% are adult males, many of them fathers leading their families to a new life that they hope will be characterized by peace. [3]

The fact that there are increasing numbers seeking refuge in the West is influenced by variables that we can empathize with if we imagine what it would have been like to endure this experience with our own families. According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, “loss of hope” is a catalyst for many families at this moment. “With Syria’s crisis now into its fifth year and no sign of a solution in sight, hope is dwindling for many refugees. Feelings of uncertainty about the future are compounded by miserable conditions, fuelling a sense of despair and desperation.” The “high cost of living” and “deepening poverty” in host countries are also contributing. “The cumulative effect of four years in exile with restricted access to legal employment was also said to be taking its toll. In many cases savings are long depleted, precious valuables have been sold off and many refugees across the region live in miserable conditions, struggling to pay rent, feed their families, and cover their basic needs.” In addition, the practical urgency created by recent “cuts to food aid” from international relief programs, “hurdles to renew legal residency” in host countries where they first sought shelter, and “scant education opportunities” are obstacles that make staying where they are seem like less and less of a viable option and moving on seem like the only, even if risky, choice. [4]

MEBO’s partners in Lebanon are working through local churches to demonstrate God’s love by meeting the tangible, urgent needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the displaced who remain in Syria. We encourage you join us in this partnership as we in the West rise to the challenge set before us by Lebanese believers and choose faithfulness instead of fear.

[1] United Nations. “Country Profiles: Lebanon.” http://data.un.org/CountryProfile.aspx?crName=Lebanon. Accessed October 5, 2015.

[2] Nabil Costa. “Lebanese Baptist Speaks to European Christians About Refugee Crisis.”  http://www.ethicsdaily.com/lebanese-baptist-speaks-to-european-christians-about-refugee-crisis-cms-22944#sthash.vOVcfjjA.dpuf. Accessed October 5, 2015.

[3] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Inter-Agency Regional Update: Syrian Refugees.”  http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.  Accessed October 5, 2015.

[4]  Adrian Edwards, “Seven factors behind movement of Syrian refugees to Europe.” http://www.unhcr.org/560523f26.html Accessed October 5, 2015.