North American Christians can be confident and excited about the contribution of refugees to our communities. We also need to appreciate the sometimes greater and more vital contribution of refugees when we assist them to remain. This is perhaps nowhere truer than among Christian refugees.
In July 2015, New York Times Magazine printed a story called “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” The piece followed a number of Syrian Christians, chronicling their plight. About one Syrian Christian father, the author wrote: “He wanted to leave like everyone else, although it would hasten the end of Christianity in Syria…. ‘Christians will all leave,’ he said. ‘What can I do? I have four kids, I can’t leave them here to die.’”
This kind of story is played on repeat across the Middle East and around the world. North American Christians must be wary of inflating our own persecution complexes at the same time as we openly and adamantly speak out against the deadly persecution of Christians around the globe.
China, North Korea, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt. The list of places where Christians are violently oppressed could go on. It takes the shape of imprisonment, murder, theft of homes, job discrimination, exclusion, illegal taxation, and dhimmitude. It is a manifestation of the global culture of death.
No Christian wants to be a refugee. They do not want to run away from their homelands. Their pastors and priests don’t want them to go either. But so many feel they must flee. As we think about the enormous contributions of resettled refugees in our own countries—and what a blessing it is for the Western Church to take in the stranger—it is important to emphasize again the significance of the contribution of those same displaced people if they were enabled to remain in their homelands. For the sake of the world, Christians must be empowered to stay!
The issue of mass Christian exoduses is nothing new. From the earliest days of the Church, Christians were sent and scattered by the powers of this world. More recently, in 1989, the Middle East Council of Churches published a paper discussing Christian emigration out of the region. It claimed Christians who stayed had three options before them: “…they can become a militant ghetto (cf. Lebanon), they can become a docile ghetto, or they can seek to adopt an open Christianity which acknowledges the legitimacy of the Islamic revival, but which also searches for its own role in current events.” In other words, according to the leading organization for Christian ecumenism in the Arab world, Christians could either fight, cling to barest survival, or more thoroughly integrate into the culture.
As children of the King, as lovers of peace and mercy, we should never encourage the militant option. It would likely fail and would even more likely be unchristian. The other two possibilities, survival-mode Christianity and greater assimilation, are not particularly attractive either, but they at least permit the continued contribution of Christians even in the least neighborly societies.
What is that contribution?
Christians are salt and light. They are temples of God in pagan lands. They are little Christs in a foreign world, shining with him, suffering with him, and also rising with him.
The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity. Other refugee-making regions are just as much under the sovereignty of God as any gleaming city in North America. If these places, perhaps especially the Arab world, are emptied of the Christians and other moderates and minorities, what is left is darker and more dangerous.
The Western Church must not only tell our persecuted brethren around the world to be patient, be resilient, find empathy, fear not—we must help them do it. Words alone are heartbreakingly naïve. They fall flat. Directives to wait and endure are not evil sentiments, but they can come across more idyllic than realistic, more theoretical than practical. Earthly hopes can prove to be only hope. Words and dreams, after all, can be rendered faulty by their inability to be made reality.
But God has gifted the Church with a vision and a mission to live out Kingdom reality. We need to aid uprooted believers in prayer, in resources, in people, in strength. We need to go to them, not only bring them to us. If we care about the future of Christianity in the Middle East and elsewhere, let us join ourselves to it by actually being present, suffering what they suffer and blessing what they bless.
Christianity is not a religion of geography. It is not dependent on sacred mountains, holy valleys, or even manmade temples. And yet, God wants tribes and nations everywhere to know him. He cares about the land. About home.
What is happening in the Middle East and North Africa and South Asia is not merely political—it is also a spiritual battle. The diseases that festered at the end of the last century—fundamentalism, persecution, corruption, imperialism—have become even more deadly in the last 20 years. They have resulted in the accelerating amputation of minorities and moderates from their homelands. That presence in the land—the Christian presence—is as inherently spiritual as it is political, social, and economic. It matters.
The Church can contribute by espousing a worldview that stresses mutual respect and minority rights. The Church can be a balancing force. It does diplomacy in Lebanon, it conducts negotiations in the DRC, it nurses shalom in Mexico.
There is a future for Christians in the Middle East and in other difficult places. There must be. And we in the West must believe it. That future need not including riding visas or inflatable rafts westward. It must rather include an emphasis on the social contribution of Christians to peace, to community development, to being good neighbors. The economic contributions of working and creating in society. The political contribution toward human rights and a policy of loving neighbors and enemies. The spiritual contributions of the fruits of the Spirit and the use of spiritual gifts, as well as those potential contributions that have yet to be reached: perhaps finding a meeting place between the Allahu akbar of Islam and the “God in Christ” of Christianity, between the seemingly irreconcilable differences in the language and content of the Bible and other holy books, between interpretations of prophethood and holiness, and more. Admittedly, such common grounds have not always been found over the millenia, and the immediate future does not look promising everywhere, but we must seek dialogue and reconciliation (not between truth and falsehood, but between people) nevertheless.
Finally, the Western Church must seek solidarity with the persecuted Church overseas without marginalizing them from their own lands. As history has proven, it is sometimes difficult to keep spiritual friends abroad and political friends at home. After all, some ask, how can Arab Christians be the partners of their Western Christian brothers without being their pawns? At the same time, how can they be the partners of their Islamic overlords in the Near East without being their stooges?
For a livable Christian future in the Middle East and elsewhere, the West can encourage Christians to integrate fully into their contexts. For our part, we cannot afford to recognize only Christians in the Middle East, but Arab Christians. We strive to see the Eastern churches—the first churches—maintain a healthy, mutually-enriching communion with the West and its believers, “while not compromising their authentic belonging to the native soil of the East from where they sprang.”
The practical, daily hope for Arab Christianity is in the enigma of the Arab Christian’s communion with God and with other Arabs.
It is the mystery of communion that will form the unique contribution of the church to the building of a more human world. If this comes to pass, then there is still hope that one will be able to speak in the third millennium of both ‘Arab and Christian.’”
The majority of my Christian friends in the Middle East say they have little or no control over their future. Their fate, and the fate of the Arab Church, is not in their own hands. It belongs to the umma and regional hegemons, to the West and oil tycoons, to tyrants and their backers, militias and their arms dealers. Their future belongs to many, they believe. What matters is that it does not belong to them.
I hope that the Middle East remains a neighborhood safe and supportive of “many mansions,” some of which will proudly bear the sign of the cross. Christians can lean on some of their finest work in the region of late—top educational institutions, incredible NGOs, its voice for tolerance and for the rights of Palestinians, ecumenism—to prolong and perhaps revive their vitality in the region. But, unfortunately (though maybe most Christianly), I side with my believing Arab friends, agreeing that the Christian future is not up to Christians.
From a purely spiritual perspective, we know our God will not allow the Church to die. Individual churches die—maybe even regional churches die—but the Church lives on eternally.
Practically speaking, however, more must be done to protect the Arab Christians as “the stars in the Islamic universe.” We cannot stop at prayer and polemics.
The Christian faith is a faith that endures despite suffering—endures even by suffering. It is easy for a wealthy, white Westerner to remind, but that does not make it untrue, that to be great in the Kingdom of God we must become least. Only by losing our life do we find it. The Church can hang onto hope even when hope is but the thinnest thread to heaven.
To turn hope into reality means it cannot be abandoned. This is how Christianity survives and eventually thrives: on the relevance of its faith. It is no mere platitude to say true Christians only survive in the Middle East and elsewhere as they retain true Christianity. That is, if the Arab Church will endure with Islam, if the poor Church will persevere under tyranny, if the peaceful Church will survive war, it must wear the armor of faith and the badge of the cross, taking on humility, peace, love of enemies, grace, and all the rest. The task of the Middle Eastern Christian, like all Christians, is not only to live the life of the least, but to outlive it—that is, live it all the way until the Second Coming of Christ and the restoration of all things.
Jesus taught us not only how to live, but also how to die. He, like the Arab Church must, practiced resurrection. For he too died. And then, after three days in the hull of the earth, the belly of death’s own Nineven whale, there was a lesson in rebirth. This is the Christian inheritance, bidden to Arab Christians no less than any other, and perhaps, today, more.
Let us recognize fully the contribution of Christians in their homelands. Let us honor and invest in those contributions. Let us join in suffering with persecuted believers and with Paul who said, “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). Let us forgive as Christ forgave (Luke 23:24) and overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:21). And let us never forget and never cease our prayers for the Church around the world. “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” (Heb. 13:3).
Wherever we are, we are one Body. Let us mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. And let us seek the good of all people, not desiring to escape them, but to live like Christ among them.
 Griswold, Eliza. “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” New York Times Magazine. July 22, 2015.
 Antonie Wessels. Arab and Christian? Christians in the Middle East. Kampen: Kok Pharos Publishing House. 1995. p. 227.
 Ibid. p. 280.
 Habib C. Malik. Islamism and the Future of the Christians of the Middle East. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press. 2010. p. 56.
 Wessels. p. 228.
 Historian Kamal Salibi’s 1988 book “A House of Many Mansions” paints a vivid historical and psychologically reflective portrait of Lebanon as a patchwork of different religious and ethnic communities. The debate is always about determining an identity by which there might be solidarity and coexistence. Such is the debate of the whole region today.
 Wessels borrows the term from the tenth century Islamic historian, al-Mas’udi.
 For a further theology of persecution, check out Open Doors, an organization that serves persecuted Christians around the world.