Christians are missing out on chances to share Christ amid the fearful, hostile discourse on refugees and Muslims currently prevalent, a Southern Baptist religious freedom advocate said at a Capitol Hill discussion.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said Dec. 9, “[T]here are many opportunities for people to visibly show the love of Christ that are being evaporated due to fear.”
As a Christian who completely disagrees with Islam, “my response to my Muslim neighbors cannot be one of fear and loathing,” Moore told an audience of nearly 100 people in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center. “My response to my nonviolent, law-abiding Muslim neighbor needs to be a loving witness to the grace and faith that comes in Jesus Christ, not in a message that communicates: ‘Because you’re not yet in Christ, you are therefore my enemy to be kept away.’”
Moore’s comments came during Capitol Conversations, a periodic, Washington, D.C., panel discussion sponsored by the ERLC. The Dec. 9 conversation – “The Syrian Refugee Crisis: A Christian Response” – followed two held in the previous five months, one on same-sex marriage and religious liberty and the other on Planned Parenthood and the sanctity of human life.
Photo by Jason Thacker
ERLC President Russell Moore (second from right) comments on the Syrian refugee crisis while fellow panelists (from left) Afshin Ziafat, Jenny Yang, Knox Thames and moderator Matthew Hawkins listen during a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.
The latest panel discussion came only two days after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed a temporary ban on the entry of Muslims into the United States. Evangelist Franklin Graham seconded Trump’s idea in a Dec. 9 Facebook post, reiterating a recommendation he made in July.
During the ERLC’s Capitol Conversations, a former Muslim who is now a Southern Baptist pastor said Christians harm their witness in this country when they call for such actions.
Christians – whose message is “that life is short and we’re to live for the eternal” – applaud missionaries who risk their lives to take the gospel overseas, but “when the mission field is coming to us, then all of a sudden we’re saying, ‘No. Get out. We want protection,’” Afshin Ziafat said.
A Christian’s goal “should not be to by all means extend my life but … by all means to spend my life being an ambassador for Christ and seeing the gospel go out,” said Ziafat, lead pastor of Providence Church in Frisco, Texas.
Amid the refugee crisis from war-torn Syria and in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Christians “cannot be the people who are so fearful of evil that we lose human compassion” and we cannot be “driven by fear in ways that cause us to try to avoid any possibility of risk,” Moore said. Also, he said, Christians cannot “sentimentalize ourselves into people who do not understand evil and the capacity of evil in the world.”
Moore acknowledged some of the public discussions are prudential ones about how government should vet refugees to maintain security while doing so with compassion. Some conversations, however, “are much darker and come from a very different place,” he said.
The recent conversation about banning Muslims “is something that ought to cause the hair on the back of the neck of every Christian and every American to stand, because this is not only an assault on human dignity and human conscience; it’s also an assault on basic religious freedoms …,” he said. “[I]f we don’t stand up for those who are unpopular at the moment, we certainly will see those very same impulses being turned against others in the fullness of time.”
The global refugee problem is greatest in the Middle Eastern country of Syria, where more than 7.6 million people are internally displaced in the face of a civil war of nearly five years and an invasion by the Islamic State terrorist group. More than 4 million Syrians are registered refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many of these are Muslims, but some are Christians or other minority religious adherents.
The Obama administration has announced it will increase the annual refugee resettlement ceiling from 70,000 in recent years to 85,000 in 2016.
In the 12-step resettlement process, 18 months to two years, is the time required before the U.S. government places a refugee with an agency, said Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, an evangelical organization that is one of nine refugee resettlement entities working with the State Department.
While the United States resettles more refugees than any other country, less than one-half of one percent of the world’s refugees are resettled in America, Yang told the audience. Most of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees World Relief has resettled in this country are women and children. Only two percent of the refugees arriving from that region are military-aged men, she said.
World Relief, which introduces each refugee family to a local church, wants “to empower churches to welcome these refugees into their communities,” Yang said. “In many of our offices, it’s actually been Southern Baptist churches that have been the most open and welcoming to the refugees” received by her agency, she said.
The rhetoric currently being used regarding Muslims has “real ramifications” on refugees, Yang told the audience. Many of those settled in this country in recent months by World Relief refuse to leave their houses because they fear they will be returned to Syria, she explained.
Knox Thames, the State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Middle East and South/Central Asia, said the rhetoric in America “does play in other places” in the world. He cited a recent meeting with Pakistani Christians, who told him terrorists in their country view Christians as “basically Americans.”
“And so if they want to hit America, they go blow up a church,” Thames said. “And if we’re pouring fuel into this fire of extremist talk, … the bad guys will go and hit Christian churches, and I’ve seen it time and time again. This stuff doesn’t stay here.”
In the current climate, Muslims are “expecting you to ostracize them,” pastor Ziafat said. “So when you reach out to love them, … it will blow them away.”
He “wouldn’t go so far as to say Islam is a religion of peace,” because Islam includes teachings on “a physical kind of jihad,” Ziafat said. He cautioned American Christians, however, “the chances are very unlikely” the Muslim neighbor across the street is a jihadist. Their Muslim neighbors “are probably confused and perplexed by what’s happening,” he told attendees.
In a first-person written commentary, Joseph Rose, who has ministered to Syrian refugees as a Christian worker in the Middle East, urged the church to welcome those fleeing their violent land.
“We must not waste this opportunity to reach out to a suffering people and to share with them the Good News of Jesus Christ,” Rose said. “Let us not allow fear to cripple us or to repress the Great Commission mandate we have been given to make Jesus followers of all peoples.”
In his Facebook post, Graham said Muslim immigration to America “should be stopped until we can properly vet them or until the war with Islam is over.” He said politicians “are not listening to the truth – my prayer is that God will open their eyes. This affects our security and the future of our nation.”
Trump’s support for closing the borders to Muslims prompted a strong response from Moore, who wrote in a Dec. 7 blog post, “Anyone who cares an iota about religious liberty should denounce this reckless, demagogic rhetoric.”
Two Southern Baptists competing with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination expressed their disagreement with him.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said he would not support a ban on Muslims. “I think we need to focus on radical Islamic terrorism, on the specific threat,” he said in a Dec. 10 interview with the Heritage Foundation.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said in a statement reported by ABC News, “A ban on Muslims is impossible to enforce because Islamic terrorists will tell whatever lie they can to enter this country to kill more Americans. And it’s simply unconstitutional to ban people on the basis of religion.”
Their responses illustrate the conclusion of a 2011 resolution that acknowledged disagreement among Southern Baptists and other Christians on how to establish a “just and humane” policy on immigration. However, the resolution also noted widespread agreement that Southern Baptists need to demonstrate biblical reconciliation “both in the verbal witness of our gospel and in the visible makeup of our congregations.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)