A national UCC leader takes us into the midst of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Greetings to you in the name of our Savior and Redeemer, Jesus Christ!
I am delighted also to greet you on behalf of the national setting of the United Church of Christ, and Global Ministries of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)! It is good to be with you this morning, and I want to begin by expressing gratitude to you for your commitments to God’s mission through the church, and your generosity to the Wider Mission of the church, and One Great Hour of Sharing, which make possible the ministries of many people and partners in the US and throughout the world, including a vital witness of hope in places of need in the Middle East. I know that partners in the region are encouraged by, and thankful for, the engagement of so many of our members and congregations.
I am especially grateful to Phil and Bonnie van Overbeke for the opportunity to share with you in worship this morning, and Nancy and Dean for their gracious hospitality. I am thankful for your congregation’s engagement in global and social justice issues, especially for your partnership in Bethlehem with the Christmas Lutheran Church and the Diyar Consortium. That church, and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, is a special place of hope in the midst of occupation.
Actually, we both have a special institutional and personal connection there: your long relationship with the church and with Mitri is a partnership that is also denominational though Global Ministries. You have heard Mitri speak many times, and have surely enjoyed his self- identification as a native of Bethlehem, just like Jesus.
As we begin to prepare for Advent and Christmas, our attention will turn towards Bethlehem, and your connection and encounter with Mitri and his ministry give you a perspective on Bethlehem most congregations don’t have. And as we move towards Christmas and beyond, we will also remember the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt to escape the massacre of the innocents, ordered by Herod.
Egyptian Christians are naturally proud of this episode in Jesus’ life—that their country offered safe haven for him, for Mary, and for Joseph, fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
My own roots are there: my father is an Egyptian Presbyterian minister. He was first ordained as a missionary to the US by the Synod of the Nile of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt, a church that was born out of the 19th century North American missionary presence in the Middle East. He is now, after retirement, serving as a missionary appointed by Global Ministries and the Presbyterian Church (USA), and working with Mitri in Bethlehem at Diyar as consultant for the Religion and State program.
I don’t need to remind you that the first Christian missionaries in the Middle East were certainly not those early Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the early 19th century, though! Instead they were Peter and Thomas, Mark, Paul, and Barnabas among others, who went out from the eastern Mediterranean to today’s Iraq, Iran, and India, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, and Greece and Rome. The disciples were first called Christian in Antioch, and the first church was established in Jerusalem by James, so our faith heritage connects us to the Christians of the region who have been there for two millennia.
The Middle East, of course, is where the three major world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—emerged. And the Holy Family was not the first refugee family to be forced to flee their home due to acts of God, natural disasters or human-created violence, persecution, or war.
The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with stories of exile:
First, Adam and Eve were displaced from the garden, as punishment, forever exiled.
The Israelites, too, spent 400 years in Egypt, followed by another 40 years in the wilderness and desert of the Sinai and Jordan, led to the land of milk and honey by Moses, and God.
Later, the Israelites experienced the 70 years of exile in Babylon, when the Babylonian Empire captured land in Judah and deported what is estimated to be about one quarter of the Israelites to what is modern-day Iraq; others sought refuge elsewhere, including Egypt. It was the Persian, Cyrus the Great who ultimately allowed them to return to Palestine in the late 6th century BC.
Any time there is displacement, for whatever reason, there are sure to be numbers of the displaced community that do not survive. Generations lived and died in Egypt, and during the exodus; and in 70 years of exile in Babylon. In the Exodus story, the departure from Egypt, we read that Moses was among those who did not make it.
God showed him the destination from Mt. Nebo on the east side of the Jordan River, but said to Moses, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there,” and he died and was buried nearby.
I stood on Mt. Nebo just about 6 weeks ago and looked across the Jordan River, imagining what it would have been like for Moses to know that, after 40 years of wandering, he would never make it to the land the people he led and cared for would inhabit.
From Mt. Nebo, you see the Jordan Valley, from the south and the Dead Sea, to the north near the Sea of Galilee, and straight across, up the hills on the other side, you can see the lights and towers of Jerusalem on a clear day.
Standing on Mt. Nebo, you can only see landscape: hills and mountains, the blue of the sky and of the Dead Sea, the green vegetation along the Jordan River valley below, and the light brown of the desert throughout. You cannot see borders that mark territory that has been contested so intensely over the past 70 years in the context of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you turn to your right, looking north, you would be able to see Lebanon and Syria.
As I stood there taking in the view, I could only lament the massive destruction of Syria that has taken place over the last 6 years. And more than that, the staggering numbers of people who have been affected.
Syrians had lived under relative stability for decades, and had offered a generous and gracious welcoming of refugees from various major conflicts over the past century.
In 1915-1923, when more than 1½ million Armenians and other non-Turks were killed during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, 1 million others were deported. Many of those resettled in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city where Armenians today still speak of the kindness of the Arab Syrians in receiving those survivors.
As Aleppo remains a deadly battleground in today’s conflict, Armenians often speak of a “second genocide,” recalling their own people’s experience 100 years ago, and the reality of the massive death and displacement in today’s Syria.
Almost three decades after the Armenian genocide, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees as a result of the displacement and dispossession during Israel’s establishment and the 1948 war. Before 2011 when the crisis in Syria began, 560,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948 and 1967, with their descendants, lived in Syria, both in and out of refugee camps.
And a third major conflict in the region, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, resulted in more than a million and a half Iraqi refugees resettling in Syria, out of a total of just over two mission Iraqis who left their country. Syria welcomed the Iraqis as well, opening their schools to Iraqi children and their hospitals and medical clinics to Iraqis, at no cost. So Syria had been a welcoming country for refugees, and somehow managed to make it work.
Then came 2011, and the so-called “Arab Spring.” In more than 5½ years since the beginning in Syria, the conflict there has evolved from demonstrations calling for economic, political, and social justice, reform, and even regime change, to a violent response by the regime against the multiple oppositions; the sectarianization of the confrontations involving often fatal assumptions linking religious identity and political persuasion, and the introduction of groups like the Islamic State.
To add further complexity, regional powers, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, have taken clear sides and have been directly engaged in this theater of a regional cold war, while other regional neighbors, like Lebanon and Jordan, have borne the onus of accepting refugees. And the crisis has been internationalized to involve non-regional powers, such as the US and Russia.
As much as the media focused on the issue of refugees a summer ago when Europe was facing an influx across land and sea borders, those attempting to enter Europe were less than 5% of the overall displaced. The refugee debate was prominent in Europe, just as it is has been here in our election cycle, with much of the discourse conflating immigration issues and mostly negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims.
Even so, church partners in Syria and throughout the Middle East remind us consistently about the massive toll the conflict has taken on the Syrian people: almost half a million have been killed so far, and more than half of the Syrian people have been displaced from their homes.
Almost 5 million have become refugees in neighboring countries, and 6½ million are displaced inside Syria. 13½ million Syrians, including 6 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
The numbers are staggering, but we must remember that each figure represents a person, someone with hopes and dreams, with plans that have been shattered, and a lot of uncertainty, even despair, as they reflect on and revise their aspirations.
The Syrian crisis has only exacerbated a worldwide refugee crisis that the UN estimates has left 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes; 21 million of those are refugees. These are the highest numbers in history, and there is every reason to believe that the trend of increasing displacement will continue.
Which brings us back to our scripture readings this morning. Jeremiah writes in the context of the Israelites’ Babylonian exile. The Lord said through Jeremiah, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture….so I will attend to you for your evil doings.”
These words are criticism of the shepherds, or the political and religious leaders of the community, who are to blame for the exile. Most of the refugees I have spoken with in the Middle East, including during our One Great Hour of Sharing delegation’s visit last month, focus less on criticism of leadership, and more about just making it from day to day where they are.
They sometimes only have the clothes they were wearing when they left home, and rely on assistance, including from our partners in the Middle East, for a tent for shelter, for water and food, for health care, and for education.
One young woman, Jawahar, had completed two years of law school in Syria before being forced to leave for Jordan, where she cannot finish her degree. She is now a refugee, teaching Arabic language and math classes for refugee children in a tent as a makeshift school. I’m sure she, and her community, have criticisms of political leadership, but their focus is on daily life, and now, preparing for winter. They do not have much optimism, but are grateful to be together.
They welcomed our group among them in their small encampment, shared openly in conversation, and expressed their hope that the conflict will be resolved, that they will be able to settle somewhere permanently, that they will be able to provide for their children safety and a promising future, wherever that may be, and that they simply yearn for home.
Just as the Israelites in Jeremiah, it is the Syrian people who have suffered as a result of the decisions of the elites, actions for which the people are not responsible but of which they endure the consequences.
Syrian refugees will always carry with them some degree of fear: it is fear that what motivated them to leave in the first place: fear of missiles and drones; fear of the threat of death, physical violence, or personal violation; fear of extremist political and religious ideologies; fear for their children. Often, they have witnessed a highly traumatic episode, involving a family member, a memory that will remain with them their whole lives.
And Syrians may never be able to return to Syria; even if the war ended tomorrow, it will require decades to rebuild. In the Jeremiah text, God promises to “gather the remnant of my flock out of the lands where I have driven them, and bring them back to their fold [and] will raise up shepherds…who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.” God promises care and hope, but we too, bear responsibility to help make that manifest.
Back to Mt. Nebo. Looking down from there, you can see the Jordan River about 400 yards below sea level, one of the lowest places on earth, so Jesus started his ministry at the deepest valley, baptized symbolically among the least privileged, and most oppressed.
Jesus was baptized by John, whose father Zechariah’s prophecy was our New Testament reading this morning. The prophecy of the Holy Spirit to Zehariah says, “The Lord God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us [so] that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. He has shown mercy… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
In the past nearly 6 years, Global Ministries has been active in raising awareness about the crisis in Syria and in advocating for a negotiated and fair end to the conflict. And we are supporting partners like the Greek Orthodox Initiative for refugee relief, the Middle East Council of Churches emergency relief department, the Forum for Development, Culture, and Dialogue, working with internally displaced inside Syria, and the Fellowship of the Evangelical Protestant Churches in the Middle East, among others, who heed their Christian calling to provide relief through the provision of food and water, clothes and shelter, and medical supplies, as well as heaters, school supplies, and other basic needs.
They do so, in the midst of very challenging circumstances and sometimes at great risk to themselves. That commitment comes from their reading of the Gospel and understanding of Jesus’ message. “He has shown mercy… By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Jesus came to serve and to minister to the most miserable of people, to show mercy, and to call us to show mercy upon all of our sisters and brothers.
For all those who sit in the darkness of despair, Syrians, refugees and displaced, and all those around us, let us be a light, and may our feet may walk in the way of restoration and peace.
Charge and Benediction
And now may the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ,
ﻧﻌﻤﺔ رﺑﻨﺎ ﯾﺴﻮع اﻟﻤﺴﯿﺢ،
The love of God,
و ﻣﺤﺒﺔ ﷲ
And the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
و ﺷﺮﻛﺔ اﻟﻮح اﻟﻘﺪس
Be with you all, now and forever more.
ﺗﻜﻮن ﻣﻌﻜﻢ اﻵن و إﻟﻰ اﻷﺑﺪ، آﻣﯿﻦ.