Thursday, June 16, 2011

112. Refugees: Christians take flight

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 112 | Wed 15 Jun 2011


By Elizabeth Kendal

According to the angel, the birth of Jesus -- 'a Saviour who is Christ the Lord' -- was an event of 'good news of great joy that will be for all the people' (Luke 2:8-14). Despite this, it would not be long before 'an angel of the Lord' would appear to Joseph to warn him of the threat to the child's life, and instruct him to gather up his family and flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13,14). And so Jesus became a refugee. This Jesus, however, has become our great high priest, and '[not] a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin'. And so the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews exhorts us, 'Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.' (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV excerpts)

The number of Christians fleeing for their lives is skyrocketing. Those with financial means may emigrate or fly out and apply for refugee status in the West, an arduous enough process. However, poorer Christians seeking refuge in a neighbouring state must risk death traversing deserts, oceans and dangerous cities, while dodging bandits and people-traffickers. Lately, finding refuge is becoming increasingly difficult. Since 2003 Iraq's Assyrian-Chaldean Christians have been fleeing for their lives into Syria and Jordan. But today secular minority-ruled Syria is in turmoil and is at risk of falling into the hands of Sunni fundamentalists or erupting into a regional sectarian conflagration. Jordan is volatile. As the doors close, where will Iraq's threatened Christians go?

Christians fleeing repression and persecution in totalitarian Eritrea have normally headed for Egypt or Yemen, two states previously run by US-allied, politically secular dictators. Egypt and Yemen, however, are no longer 'safe'. Reaching Israel involves crossing the Sinai Desert which is not only perilous in itself, but ridden with unscrupulous people-traffickers. According to Barnabas Fund an estimated 500-600 Eritrean refugees are presently detained by authorities in Egypt, while an estimated 100-200 are in the hands of traffickers.

The greatest risk for North Korean refugees is that instead of finding the 'underground railroad' (safe passage organised by Christians) they will fall into the hands of Chinese security forces who return them to North Korea and certain incarceration or execution. Likewise, many Hmong, Montagnard and other Christians fleeing persecution in Laos and the Central Highlands of Vietnam do not always find refuge.

Hundreds of thousands of Ivorian Christians now live as refugees in Liberia, having fled ethnic-religious-political cleansing in Ivory Coast. Many more remain in Ivory Coast amidst terrible insecurity. As fighting intensifies on Sudan's North-South border, hundreds of thousands of predominantly Christian Southerners are being displaced, forced to flee as Khartoum bombs the oil-rich regions to clear and claim them. Where will they go? What of the Christians residing in North Sudan?

The time Jesus spent as a refugee was no accident, having been prophesied long beforehand: Jesus, Mary and Joseph had not slipped through God's fingers; they were not outside God's providence. Furthermore, the time Jesus spent as a refugee in Egypt predicated his coming 'out of Egypt': an event filled with theological significance and pointing to Jesus being the 'son' of God, for '. . . out of Egypt I called my son' (Hosea 11:1b; Matthew 2:15). We need to pray for the safety and refuge of Christians forced to take flight and that they might discover that 'they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles . . .' (Isaiah 40:31a).


* that God the loving Father will keep them safe as they flee: hidden from wild animals, people-traffickers and criminals; sustaining them in oceans, deserts, dangerous cities and other hostile environments.

* that the Holy Spirit will sanctify them as they seek their place in the purposes of God, confidently looking to Jesus, their great high priest, as one who is well able to empathise with and meet their every need.

* particularly those who are currently in the hands of jailers or unscrupulous people-traffickers: may the God of all grace, mercy and justice draw these vulnerable believers into his presence, deliver them from violence and brutality and restore their liberty and security.