Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Welcoming the stranger: a religious perspective on the migrant crisis

How should we treat migrants and refugees? This is not an abstract question, but it is one that everyone must ask themselves today. Ever since the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi seared itself into our memories, the problem of what to do with the flood of men, women, and children who are entering Europe on a daily basis needs to be addressed. Even those of us who live far away from where this crisis is playing out must answer this question. All of us must welcome the stranger who appears in our midst. This is what our faith teaches us; indeed, every religion does. Today I want to offer a religious perspective on this crisis.

The Problem

The refugee crisis in Europe shows no signs of lessening up. A daily flow of about 8,000 refugees to Europe is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, the United Nations warns. More than 5,000 refugees and migrants -- the majority of them from Syrian -- arrive every day on Greek islands close to Turkey. That flow could continue during the winter if the weather remains good and the borders open.

About four million Syrian refugees are still stranded in squalid camps in the Middle East. Many are in dire poverty and many are longing for a new life in Europe. Some are economic migrants, but all of them are fleeing the never-ending conflicts in that part of the world.

About half a million migrants -- mostly from Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa -- have already arrived in Europe this year. Deep divisions surfaced in the EU recently when ministers agreed to relocate about 120,000 refugees across Europe.

Several countries dispute the proposed distribution plan. Hungary, Romania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia voted against it. They resent the imposition of quotas, arguing that they are ill-equipped to integrate non-EU migrants.

Note that the total is approximately 120,000, which is nowhere enough to deal with the current crisis

Many of these migrants are Muslims. Hungary, for example, claims that it cannot admit more Muslim migrants because it doesn't want them to threaten its Christian character, which is ironic since it and many other Central-European countries are thoroughly secularized.

Many refugees are determined to reach Germany, whose Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has urged EU partners to take in more refugees. Germany promised to admit at least 800,000 asylum seekers by the end of this year, but many Germans oppose this plan. The citizens of many other EU-countries are also opposed to the migrants.

These Middle Eastern migrants are only the most visible tip of an humungous iceberg. There are also thousands crossing the Mediterranean from Africa. Millions are on the march from many countries. They will be joined by millions more in the next few years.

These are not just numbers. Behind every number is a man, woman, or child. Whether they are migrants or refugees doesn't matter. Each of them has experienced the horror of fleeing the country of their birth whether for reasons of violent conflict, poverty, or the opportunity to advance themselves.

The Solution

Is this the proper response? Is this how the people of Europe ought to address the plight of the migrants? If their Christian faith still means anything to them, they should know that the Bible teaches a very different attitude to those who are in distress.

Instead of turning them away, all Europeans must welcome these strangers. In case they don't, they need to be reminded of their own history. After WWII, millions of Germans, Ukrainians, Serbs, and other nationalities were kicked out of their homes and wandered for years throughout Europe. Now the direction of the wandering is reversed. The remnants of their faith ought to be revived at the same time. 

All three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, agree on how strangers should be treated. In fact, all these religions are united in teaching the importance of welcoming and showing hospitality to strangers, and they prohibit mistreating or oppressing the strangers in their midst. According to all these faiths, doing good to strangers is considered an act of righteousness.

The Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament, commands justice and love for strangers, including giving them food and clothing. It also orders good treatment and love for strangers or aliens as they are also termed. Moreover, it forbids wronging, mistreating and oppressing them in any way.

Let me cite only the following verses, although there are more with the same message:
21 "Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 22:20-21)
33 "'When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him.  34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34).
9 "This is what the LORD Almighty says: 'Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.  10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.'" (Zechariah 7:9-10) 
 Jesus teaches this message too, as do the other New Testament writers after him:
 31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  34 "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,  36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'  37 "Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  40 "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'  41 "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 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.'  44 "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'  45 "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'  46 "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." (Matthew 25:31-46)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Abraham welcomes strangers (14th century)

Islam teaches this message as well. In Islam, a stranger is referred to as “Ibn Al-Sabil” (wayfarer). The Qur’an considers it an act of righteousness to give money to wayfarers and it even orders doing good to them.
"Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah , the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler…" (Al-Baqarah 2:177)
"Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler…" (An-Nisaa’ 4:36)
A well-known hadith reports that the Prophet Muhammad saying that God would punish those who do not supply surplus water to any travelers they meet. Moreover, alms must be provided even to those who are rich.

Even many secularized Europeans know what the proper response to migrants ought to be. One does not have to be a believer in order to feel compassion for the countless migrants pouring across their borders. Compassion is not exclusive to people of faith. In fact, non-believers can be more loving than many of those who profess to be believers.

Although they know better, the nominally Christian countries of Europe and the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East can and must do much more than some of them are currently doing. The same can be said about many other nations elsewhere in the world, regardless of the development. In response to the current crisis, all nations ought to as much as their circumstances permit.

People of faith ought to be ashamed of what some of them are saying and doing. Would that these verses from the Bible and Qur'an fan the tiny flames that might still remain in their otherwise cold hearts and make them burn passionately to provide the help that is needed. This is what God requires of them.

My own nation, Canada, is not doing enough. The former government's promises to bring in more refugees rang hollow, largely because of the stringent security screening that was required. The new government is expected to admit more refugees. Even if it is unable to bring in the promised 25,000 by the end of this year, that will probably happen by early 2016. Yet even that amount is a drop in the bucket.

The majority of Syrian refugees are currently living in the neighboring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.  These countries are unable to accept them long term. So where can they go? Many of them would either like to return home or move elsewhere. Yet, until the conflict in Syria ceases, they will not be able to go home. If they do emigrate, what country will welcome them?

Less than 1%

The alternative that many have chosen is to go to Europe or some other part of the more highly developed world. Is it unreasonable to ask these countries to admit 0.5% of these people? The combined population of these countries is about 1,25 billion. Surely, they can help them!

If every country took in an average of 0.5%, that would amount to 6.25 million migrants. That sum would likely be spread over several years, but it should take care of the current crop of migrants. Less developed countries would also take some of them, and many would return home.

In succeeding years, with more migrants expected to come from elsewhere, the more developed countries might have to create additional room and admit a further 0.5%, again spread over several years, for a total of perhaps 13 million. That doesn't take care of all migrants, but it provides many with a new home. For Canada, that would represent a total of 350,000 migrants. Currently, Canada already admits more than 250,000 immigrants annually.

In addition, efforts should be made to put an end to violent conflicts in many parts of the world and to raise the standard of living in many countries from which the migrants stem. These are the primary ways of stopping the constant flood.

But as long as the flood of migrants continues, other countries must welcome them. They are strangers who ought to be welcomed with open arms. That is what all religions teach, and now their adherents must put these teachings into practice when migrants arrive at their borders.


1 comment:

  1. Check out CBC radio's Sunday Edition from Sept. 13 - a poem by Warsen Shire - a Somali/British poet "No one puts their children in a boat....
    also Nov. 8 show: Michael Enright interviews Father Nadim Nassar - Syrian priest warns his country's Christians are in grave danger. Nadim Nassar, the only Church of England priest from Syria, describes what life is like inside the war-torn country, for its vibrant Christian community.