Changing the Face of Europe

Refugee crisis and gospel reality

I was just a boy in 1989, but I remember how the world changed as communism fell in Eastern Europe. Dictators were displaced and free elections took place. Nations that had once been closed were now open for business and travel, not to mention the gospel. The world had changed for the better.

In 2011, I thought I was watching something similar happen. We called it the Arab Spring. Dictators were displaced and free elections took place. The world seemed to be changing for the better.

It did not take too long to realize, however, that the Arab Spring was vastly different. Dictators were replaced by religious extremists. Civil war broke out in Syria, and a growing threat called ISIS grew in the Middle East.

In 2011, Turkey began to see a flow of refugees, but it was in 2013, as the war in Syria intensified, that tens of thousands fled the country1. Every member on our team in Sofia, Bulgaria, began working in earnest with them as they streamed here and elsewhere in southern Europe, seeking safety.

And southern Europe was completely unprepared, whether the refugee influx arrived on foot or by overcrowded boat. Unable to find work, many of the immigrants quickly moved on. For the most part, Southern Europe became a highway for the refugee crisis, not a final destination.

Discarded lifejackets line the shore at this landing spot for refugees on the island of Lesvos, Greece—after making the difficult journey by boat from Turkey. Top photo: Refugees receive food upon arriving at Tabanovce transit camp in Macedonia, just south of Serbia. All photos by Jim Black

There were promises of a better life if only they could find their way north, to Germany and Scandinavian countries known to have good refugee programs. So north they went. According to The Telegraph2, Germany will have received up to 1.5 million refugees by year’s end.

Earlier this year, Budapest, Hungary, was full of such refugees venturing north. Unhappy about the influx of Muslims, Hungary eventually sealed off its borders to prevent further immigrants from coming. Refugee crisis “solved.”

All across the continent, nearly every country is seeing a rise in the population of Middle Eastern ethnic groups. Most of these refugees are Muslim in faith, but some experts believe that up to 25 percent are Christians fleeing persecution. We have definitely seen this in Bulgaria, as brothers and sisters from Afghanistan, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries make their way to our church on the south side of Sofia.

It is entirely possible that we are seeing the beginnings of permanent change to the face of Europe. The Financial Times3 reports that it will take more than a year to clear all applications to Europe’s asylum system. Or perhaps the turmoil in the Middle East will settle down and refugees will return home. Many long to.

After rescue from Greece’s shore, this Iranian couple wishes to make it to Germany.

Although the future is uncertain, refugees will likely be a long-term reality in Europe. Unfortunately, according to Timo Heimlich of the ReachGlobal Berlin City Team, “Americans have short-term memories.” Those of us serving in Europe, however, do not have the luxury of forgetting. We face an undeniable biblical mandate to help the refugees on our doorstep (Zachariah 7:10, Mark 12:28-31), with clear consequences if we refuse to do so (Deuteronomy 27:19).

Yet this crisis situation is also an amazing opportunity for ReachGlobal workers. “We are looking for opportunities to come alongside the local churches and ministries that are serving refugees at the point of origin, in transit or at their place of resettlement,” says Todd Hiltibran, ReachGlobal Europe international leader. “Everything we are doing is looking toward ‘multiplying transformational churches among all people.’”

For years, missiologists have talked about the 10/40 Window4 as the least-reached part of the world: this swath of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia that includes the majority of the world’s Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. We as Westerners cannot easily minister there. Yet while these refugees are with us, we have the opportunity to reach them with the gospel. Already, we are seeing former Muslims come to saving faith in Jesus and be baptized.

An Afghani girl (shown here with a volunteer) and her family wait in a Greek transit camp.

The Arab Spring turned out to be very different from the fall of communism, but the story is not over. In itself, the Arab Spring has not brought liberty to the Middle East. Yet perhaps by the love of Christ shown through us, that revolution will bring about something better: the rise of the gospel to a people living in darkness.

Stay tuned for more updates regarding the EFCA’s specific responses to the world refugee situation.

To view an interactive map of the flow of asylum-seekers across Europe, visit the ReachBudapest blog.

1Wired magazine, “Mapping the Syrian Refugee Crisis Across Europe: In pictures,” Sept. 11, 2015, by Katie Collins.

2The Telegraph, “Germany expects up to 1.5 million migrants in 2015,” Oct. 5, 2015, by Justin Huggler and Matthew Holehouse.

3The Financial Times, "Europe’s 1m refugees will take a year to process, says EU,” Nov. 10, 2015, by Duncan Robinson.

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