Recently when AGWM Communications Director Randy Hurst was in Amman, Jordan, en route to Baghdad, Iraq, he interviewed Dikran Salbashian, who serves on the Commission on Religious Liberty for the WAGF. Dikran was asked how the AG churches in Jordan and Iraq, while under pressures themselves, are still able to effectively engage in relief and outreach ministry to many thousands of refugees in the current Middle East crisis.
RH: Dikran, please talk to me a little bit about the Christian refugee situation here in Jordan and the surrounding areas.
DS: Jordan is in a strategic position in the Middle East. It’s surrounded by Iraq on the east, Saudi Arabia on the south, the West Bank in Israel on the west and Syria and Lebanon to the north. Jordan is a safe haven for those running from their countries.
Jordan estimates we have 1.3 million Syrian refugees alone right now. We have 130,000 Iraqis. Another 9.3 million are migrant workers from Egypt and from other countries. 100,000 of them live in Za’atari camp. Others live in cities in the north and the middle of Jordan.
In the north our churches are reaching out through Convoy of Hope and other organizations. We have food distribution once a week, helping individual families for up to four months. We help 150 families in the north and 150 families here in the city of Amman every week. 99 percent of them are head-covered, observant Muslims from Syria and Iraq.
We bring them into our churches and they listen to a small lesson of God’s love and acceptance for them. They cry as they come into the church. We tell them how much we love them, and then, without obligation, we give them food parcels that last for 10- 15 days, depending on the family. Sometimes we give them hygiene kits. And we have a stand with Bibles and Christian literature for anyone to take. We give them encouragement and sometimes pray for them.
We don’t call them refugees as that word has bad connotations. We tell them, “You are our guests.” They often say, “You treat us with dignity. You do not make us feel unwanted.”
RH: I understand many of the refugees are Muslims, but what do you hear from the Christian refugees of why they fled and how they were treated?
DS: Most Christians leave Syria for three reasons. First, the bombings. It’s very unsafe. Second, they have no work and no promise of work.
RH: Because they’re Christians?
DS: No, not necessarily. The third reason they flee is if they’re close to where ISIS or one of the many other groups like it operates. Many of them have lost people to ISIS.
A man and his wife came to me for help and I asked,“Do you have any children?” He told me he had a daughter, but that ISIS came to his city of Ma’loula, where they speak Aramaic near Damascus. ISIS attacked the family and raped and killed the daughter. She was just a teenager. So the man and his wife left everything and fled here.
Fear is always present. Christians in the Middle East are so afraid. Jordan is the safest country but it is here too. One of our cell group leaders was in a modern mall in Amman and was carrying a small cross. A man came up next to her and said, “We’re coming to slaughter you. We’re coming to slit your throats, you Christians.” So now she too is afraid and wanting to leave.
RH: In what other kinds of ways do you see the persecution against the Christian church on the rise?
DS: Generally the Muslim population looks down on Christians and blames them for the actions of the West, like America and England. They say, “You belong to them.” They hate Christians. There’s tension. It’s less in Jordan but in Syria and Iraq it’s tremendous.
Existing Christians feel more or less like second-class citizens. There’s no direct persecution, except if you convert openly. If you convert from Islam, your family first, then the government will persecute you. But if you keep quiet, and you’re converting quietly, you’re put under pressure.
If you really dig deep down, you will find there is some persecution. A lady told me about her son going to the funeral of his friend’s mother. The Muslim sheik, the cleric in the mosque, started cursing Christians and Jews during the funeral. His friend kept saying, “I apologize for what the cleric is doing.”
RH: How is this crisis opening doors for the gospel? Do you see it going beyond these refugees back to their families?
DS: This crisis is opening doors for refugees to come to safer places and accept the Lord. It’s also giving our churches in Jordan opportunities to do hands-on serving of the poor.
Iraqis, Syrians and Iranians are filling American and European churches. Some of the churches are reaching out to them, but others are wary of them because many are Muslims. I understand the apprehension because of what is heard in the media.
So Christian refugees in Europe or North and South America, mostly Europe, are getting calls from local churches, saying, “Come and help us understand these people.” We ourselves had people from Finland ask if we could send a team to work with the refugees in Finland who are sick of what is happening in Muslim countries and are searching for the truth.
We also have Jordanian missionary families working in England with Arab and Muslim refugees who live there. There’s freedom to share the gospel in England and the majority of those refugees are open to listen to the gospel and to explore.
In Europe, instead of the missionaries coming to the refugees (which is very difficult), the refugees are coming to the missionaries. They are coming to the churches. So I ask the western churches: Are you ready for them?
Randy Hurst is AGWM Advancement Director for the Assemblies of God USA.