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Samuel Escobar

Syrian refugees in Europe

In the second century there were commercial links between Gaul, nowadays France, and Syria. Among Syrian merchants, there were believers in Christ who contributed to spreading the Gospel in the European continent.

FEATURES AUTHOR Samuel Escobar TRANSLATOR Israel Planagumà 02 OCTOBER 2015 12:09 h GMT+1
refugees, Syria, Lesbos, 2015 Syrian refugees arriving to the Mediterranean island of Lesbos. / AFP

The constant hammering in the media, showing hordes of refugees fleeing to Europe, moves us and shakes our conscience.

Those of us living in Europe wonder about how European Christians are going to respond to this crisis. Many of them, in places like Hungary or Sweden, have already started to respond out of their Christian conscience and with whatever means they have within their reach. We also have to admit that Christians don't have a monopoly on these displays of compassion and solidarity.

Something is already under way, but there is much more left to do.

Scenes of Syrians crossing towards Croatia brought back memories of a historical event for me, along with a theological reflection. The eminent Christian missions historian Kenneth Scott Latourette reminds us, in the first of seven volumes of his History, that in the 2nd century there were commercial links between Gaul, nowadays France, and Syria. Among Syrian merchants, there were believers in Christ who contributed to spreading the Gospel in that region.[1]  

Also, the earliest signs of Christianity in India are also ascribed to Syrian merchants and was rediscovered in the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived there.[2]

Miroslav Volf is a distinguished Evangelical theologian from Croatia, who currently is teaching at the Faculty of Theology in Yale University. In a previous article, I commented on the book which has made him famous, Exclusion and Embrace.[3] It is a deep reflection on the theme of how humans build their identity, and how in the process of doing that, they distance themselves from other, from “the others”.

I had the privilege of knowing Volf in 1991. At that time he was teaching at the Osijek Bible Institute, a beautiful town in what then was Yugoslavia. A few months later I saw on TV, to my great surprise, how this town had exploded, destroyed by the tragedy of the division of that country among Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. A bloody, fratricidal war followed, in which the World saw unbelievable extremes of genocide and destruction. Racial hatred and exclusion led these Eastern Europeans to commit the same atrocities that we saw happening again between ethnic groups in Rwanda, in East Africa.

In his book Exclusion and Embrace, Volf proposes a theological exploration of the issues of one's identity, the identity of “the others”, and reconciliation. He claims that the understanding of the Christian message, and the mission of the Church today, have to take these issues into account, because around these issues we will find some of the most serious challenges to faith in the coming decades. As human beings, we belong to families, peoples, races, nations, realities from which our identities get shaped. Also, as human beings, we become aware of other humans belonging to other families, peoples, races and nations. There is an initial moment of exclusion in which we discover, affirm, and enjoy everything that is exclusive to us, and that makes us different from “the others”.

If and when this process of exclusion intensifies and becomes exaggerated, we could reach the point of understanding as the only possible way of live distancing ourselves from the rest, by affirming our own identity, excluding others. However, social realities like migrations or the formation of nations impose on us having to live with others who are different. If an excluding attitude prevails, it ends up making coexistence impossible, and reveals itself in forms of exclusion like racial segregation in the United States, or apartheid in South Africa.

In these systems, the powers that be organize society in a way that excludes those who are different. Exclusion results in contempt, reducing other to an inferior life, curtailing their opportunities of advance, multiplying privileges for “our kind” at the cost of sacrifices and disadvantages for “the others”. It is appalling to watch how xenophobic attitudes are growing among some political parties, with raising influence in countries like France, Germany, Italy or Greece.

If we examine carefully the New Testament, we can find in the very center of the Gospel a criticism of exclusion, and an invitation to abandon this attitude. In Volf's theology, Christ's cross is central, inviting us to reconsider our attitudes, to replace exclusion with a fraternal embrace, receiving others in light of a new identity which now stems from our relationship with Christ.

When Syrian refugees, or refugees of any other nationality, start living in European cities, we will be facing the challenge of putting exclusion aside and offering an embrace instead. In Spain, this has happened to a certain point, with the arrival of Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans who have found in many churches a fraternal embrace. Certainly, we will increasingly find among today's refugees people who know Christ, and who will be used to live out and announce the message of Christ, like those Syrian merchants from the 2nd or from the 9th century who went to the south of France or to India spreading the Gospel.

Samuel Escobar is an international speaker, author and theologian. 

[1] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, Volume 1, The First Five Centuries Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1970; p. 98.

[2]  Kenneth Scott Latourette, Volume 2, The Thousand Years of Uncertainty, p. 281.

[3]  Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1996.




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