Muslim Refugees: A Christian Response
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
MR553 - Islam in North America
Fuller Theological Seminary
Recent Middle EasternMuslim Refugees of War:
A Christian Response According to Scripture
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain
the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and
the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. | Psalm 82:3-4
Nearly seventeen years have past since the United States was attacked by Muslim extremists. Rightfully so, Americans became cautious of practicing Muslims post September 11th, yet some chose to channel their fear into curiosity. Many have taken the initiative to dive into the teachings of Islam and have subsequently developed substantial relationships with Muslims living in the United States. Predictably, this population is ever changing due to multiple and diverse conflicts in the Middle East. Refugees of war are being created by both civil war in individual nations as well as conflicts within sects of Islam itself.
These atrocities are challenging both the government of the United States as well as Americans who remain conflicted about their response. D’Appolonia and Reich state, “In effect, while focusing on distant wars, screening procedures at embassies around the world, and border controls at home, U.S. policy makers have paid little attention to the dynamics of the relationship between integration, security, and civil rights.” Christians have a unprecedented opportunity to share the love and light of Christ during these turbulent times. As sisters and brothers in Christ continue to develop their understanding of Muslims residing in the United States, special attention should be paid to the recent insurgence of Muslim refugees of war and a biblical response to their particular needs should be developed and replicated. In an effort to bring this desire to fruition, the following text will uncover basics of those conflicts which create Middle Eastern Muslim refugees, discuss specifics about Middle Eastern refugee populations in the United States and their needs before moving into a proposed biblical response to displaced persons.
What Causes Muslim Middle Eastern Refugees
The Middle East is comprised of 18 nations stretching from Egypt to Iran. Conflicts within this specific territory have continued from pre-written language until today so it is no wonder many Americans are at a loss when it comes to the specifics leading to Muslim refugees today. Currently, there are two main reasons a Muslim refugee would come out of this region and possibly resettle in the United States. These reasons are civil war and jihad on behalf of militant Muslim extremists. Unfortunately, main conflicts being covered in recent times are occurring in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and in the recent past Egypt. The common theme amongst these, and any civil war for that matter, is the unrest amongst citizens who feel they are being oppressed by their governments or lead in ways that seem to be at odds with their moral standing and faith structures. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has been at the helm of civil war since the Damascus Spring which was followed largely by the inaction of his government to institute necessary reforms in the region causing continued conflict and destruction of much of the country. Afghanistan, similarly, has been facing destructive practices of a harmful government since the Taliban’s reign and subsequently their resurgence. To date, the war in Afghanistan is the longest conflict on the books of the United States military. Iran is amongst the newest in the line of major civil unrest. They have recently been experiencing an uprising from within the country as it’s citizens are revolting against governmental schemes that affect the impoverished communities in non-metropolitan areas. The Persian Islamic Revolution in 1979 led to rule by radical Islam, instead of the monarchy, leading to isolation by most western nations. Many fled to the United States and Europe. Iran continues to pose a nuclear threat and fund extremist threats in current conflicts including supporting the Assade regime in Syria. Finally, the conflict in Egypt should be mentioned as another continuous battle of unrest which continues to create recent Muslim refugees of war. Facing continuous conflict for more than ten years, Egypt has seen the rise and fall of several Presidents, one of which was sentenced to life in prison. The Muslim Brotherhood took to violence against Egyptian soldiers as they believed elections eliminating all of their candidates were rigged. Suffice it to say, while the United States can claim peace and civility amongst its boarders for the most part, countries that comprise the Middle East would appear to be opposite. Protestors in the region prefer guns and ammunition to the simple occupation and poster board picketing that is largely seen in Washington, DC. For this reason, those who can get out, do and those who cannot, perish or face extreme situations.
The Suni versus Shia conflict closely follows governmental unrest and protest in the area. Many times these issues become one in the same. For example, cities like Bagdad and Mosul within Iraq’s boarders are seeing the extremes of militant Islam as they continue to instigate violence amongst the Shia minority within the country. This violence includes bombings of innocent women and children, destruction of holy sites, and massacres of particular groups.  Reasoning behind the conflict within Islam dates back to the days immediately following the death of the prophet Muhammad, in which there was much contention regarding the successor of Muhammad. Brown explains,
“Roughly 80 percent of Muslims identify themselves as Sunis. About 18 percent call themselves Shias. …The short answer is that Shias and Sunis are divided over the questions of leadership and authority within the umma. The division is rooted in the early years of Islamic history when Muslims faced the urgent question of who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community.”
During this debate Shias supported Muhammad’s cousin, Ali and his descendants. “The Sunni theory of the caliphate required that the leader of the Muslims would be male, a member of the Prophet’s tribe of the Quraysh, and meet certain basic qualifications for fitness…(which) came to be vested in the Quran and the Sunna.” Obviously many implications of this divided ensued, including differences in law, ritual, attitudes toward suffering, and eschatology. Clearly, these are matters of religious difference that may never be resolved yet continue to drive major unrest globally.
Who Are Muslim Middle Eastern Refugees and What Are Their Needs
Understanding Muslim Middle Eastern Refugees and developing a heart of compassion toward their plight largely involves grasping the many conflicts that might have driven them individually to seek asylum and resettlement outside their native homeland. While scripture calls each believer to show kindness to the stranger, one might find their own desire for self preservation prevails when the knowledge of the strangers background is lacking. To this end, rather than festering fear, one might desire to dive deeper into the aforementioned conflicts and religious divisions, which will reveal the predicament of the oppressed, regardless of religion or creed. In other words, Muslims fleeing for the safety of their selves and families need not be feared, rather viewed as fellow sojourners seeking security and good will.
While the term jihad, which actually means struggle, has become synonymous with the suicide bombers who wished to kill American infidels (non-Muslims), the term also includes those Muslims wishing to protect their own brethren. Grewal says, “In some cases, American Muslim men traveled to fight (and a few died) in military jihads around the world in the eighties and nineties, in Afghanistan against the Russians and in Bosnia against the Serbs.” Grewal calls to attention the fact that not all practicing Muslims are terrorists or wish death on Americans. While this statement can sound extreme, the current state of Islamophobia in the United States proves the contingency behind the school of thought. The Center for American Progress published a report saying, “Representing a key constituency for the Republican Party, fundamentalist Christians have been able to push Islamophobic discourse into mainstream GOP politics, segments of the religious right have been at the forefront of fear mongering about Muslims.”  In other words, Middle Eastern Muslim refugees are no closer to being terrorists than a random high school student sitting in an American classroom today. Yet, fear has continued to limit their ability to thrive, the ability of Christians to meet their needs and opportunity to show them the same grace Christians received through the gift of Christ’s sacrifice. The Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a splinter group of al Queda which adheres to extremist Suni views amongst Muslim teachings. Unfortunately, the over 65 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide have been misidentified with this extremist group, while the truth is that they are also fleeing the violence imposed by these terrorist. In fact, “Muhammad Husayn Haykal the Egyptian author of the most famous twentieth-century Muslim biography of Muhammad – argued that Muhammad was a man of modern morals (according to peace and kindness passages in the Quran).”
The needs of those fleeing persecution and unrest in their homelands range from the most basic toiletries to advanced training in their former areas of expertise. While this is true, it is also important to remember that America has actually included Muslims since the days of legalized slavery. In other words, comparatively Muslims in the United States are most often second, third or even fourth generation Americans and rarely Middle Eastern refugees. Those who do find themselves in the later category have more than likely experienced one of the greatest humanitarian crises of history first hand and are in need of love, compassion and resettlement in every sense of the word. Bemak and his coauthors state,
Acculturative stress is a combination of ameliorating effects of environmental, familial, demographics, and other factors and refers to a unique type of distress that involves adjusting to a foreign country. It includes elements of the acculturation model … such as changing one’s identity, values, behaviors, cognitions, attitudes, and affect.
Undoubtedly, the opportunity for Christians to make an impact on these Middle Eastern Muslim Refugees is unprecedented and has unlimited potential for God to reach those who are experiencing displacement and acculturative stress.
A Christian Response According to Scripture
As one researches a Christian response to the refugee crisis, confusion may ensue. Amongst Christians a wide variety of responses are prevalent and extremes are present. Currently, the Trump Administration is being investigated by the Supreme Court as to the constitutionality of their ban on Muslim immigrants from several Muslim majority nations. The administration is largely backed by the right wing GOP Republican contingency who spread fear tactics discussed earlier. However as has been written, one has a better chance of being struck by lightening than being killed at the hands of a terrorist on American soil. Ironically, the very Muslim’s being banned by the Trump Administration have themselves been victims of discrimination and persecution in their own land only to attempt to venture to safety to find themselves at increased risk of the aforementioned as they seek asylum in the United States. Newman states,
The universal legal basis to refugee status, on which the policies of refugee protection rest, is widely understood as relating not to those displaced by conflict but to those with an individual persecution-related need, based on discrimination, and a related right to receive protection outside their country of origin.
The response of fear flies in the face of biblical scripture which calls Christians to put their faith in the Lord whom promises will protect and guide his people. “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9) Further one might turn to the words of Christ himself,
For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. He will reply, Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. (Matthew 25:42-45)
In this context, believers are not only called to provide food and shelter for those who are displaced but also welcome with loving arms in an effort to share the grace they have received from Christ. The Lord says to put fear in his hands and to be preoccupied with meeting the needs of others rather than themselves.
In his statement, at a meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Washington, DC, Afshin Ziafat, an Iranian Muslim convert to Christianity, says this, “We applaud missionaries who have an eternal perspective and take risks, but then when the mission field is coming to us all the sudden we’re saying no, get out, we want protection. The goal of a Christian shouldn’t just be to preserve my life but to expend my life for the gospel.” In making this statement, Pastor Ziafat both reiterated the sentiments of scripture but also exemplified what it means to become an advocate on behalf of the oppressed. Proverbs 31:8 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Rather than leaving the policies that govern the United States to those who find themselves in power, Christians are unmistakably called to speak out in favor of welcoming refugees.
Another practical action Christians can undergo happens to include skills that have more than likely become second nature to natural born citizens of the United States. Unlimited opportunities exist for teaching English to those whose predominate language may be Arabic or Farsi. Shenk also discusses the power of acting as a conversation partner over a cup of tea as paramount in relationship building with non-believers. According to Christian non-profits like For the Nations, an immense need exists for providing transportation when families arrive on United States soil, toiletry and living necessity donations, resume workshops and assistance with employment searches, citizenship class teachers and general friendships. While opportunities like these may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of the Lord, it was an English tutor who would ultimately change the eternal path of Pastor Ziafat as she handed him a New Testament one day after their lesson. Pastor Ziafat now leads a congregation in North Dallas and regularly travels back to his war torn land to share the gospel with the lost. Still, Christians must remain conscious to not take advantage of these refugees during their time of crisis rather remain focused on sharing the graciousness once offered them in their time of need through Christ Jesus.
Recent Middle Eastern Muslim refugees of war are too made in the image of God and deserve the opportunity to experience grace, understanding, comfort and friendship. They have witnessed and lived through the greatest of atrocities and have been lead astray by their culture, context and faith. “What Satan intended for evil, God meant for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 15:20) American Christians have a great opportunity to serve this population by welcoming them, advocating on their behalf and working tirelessly to share the love and light of Christ through acculturation assistance, friendship and support.
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. | Isaiah 1:17
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