Amid the fading beauty of central Athens, not far from the ancient ruins that draw so many tourists, a monumental refugee crisis persists. Along with suffering and uncertainty, the unfolding crisis offers an unprecedented opportunity for gospel witness among Muslims.
And for the past two years, members of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (NOBTS) community have traveled to Europe to minister among the refugees.
Photo by Gary D. Myers
Members of the NOBTS mission team pray for the residents of two squatter apartment complexes in central Athens. Refugees in Athens have few housing options and many occupy previously abandoned buildings as they await action on their immigration status.
Muslim refugees, driven from their homelands by war and political upheaval, reportedly began converging on Europe in 2015. Four years after the initial wave of refugees arrived on the shores of Greece, the crisis continues throughout Europe.
This year’s NOBTS team experienced an unexpected openness during a week-long evangelism trip to Athens. At the end of the trip, the team witnessed the baptisms of four new believers who grew up as Muslims.
After a successful evangelism trip to Naples distributing “The Savior” film in 2018, Mike Edens decided to lead a mission team to the Greek capital, which is reportedly home to more than 100,000 refugees. Edens, distinguished professor of missions and theology at NOBTS, expressed excitement about the collaborative effort taking place in Athens.
Southern Baptist ministries in Athens have partnered with five Greek Evangelical churches to address the refugee crisis through compassion ministries and gospel witness.
Edens noted he was pleased to see “the interweaving of the Greek Evangelical churches, the SBC partners and ethnic believers.”
“They were really functioning as the body of Christ in the cauldron that is Athens,” he said.
As with the Italy trip the year before, the evangelism strategy focused on the distribution of “The Savior” film to Muslim refugees.
“The Savior” is a feature-length movie filmed by Robert Savo in the Middle East, using Middle Eastern actors. The script, Edens said, not only has Middle Eastern viewers in mind, it effectively addresses many Muslim objections to Christianity without compromising the gospel. The film tells the story and counters Muslim objections utilizing the Gospel of Luke along with two additional accounts from John.
Savo and his team distribute the film to Muslims on small Secure Digital (SD) memory cards designed to play on Android cellphones. In addition, the team has secured broadcast deals to show the film on national television networks in a variety of places.
The 12-member NOBTS team distributed SD cards containing the film to Muslim-background shopkeepers in central Athens each morning. In the afternoon, small groups set up distribution tables at strategic locations around Athens. The seminary volunteers were joined by local translators. The translators were all professing Christians, most of them whom grew up in Muslim families. The day before the distribution began, team members prayer walked in the areas with high refugee populations.
Long before the refugees arrived in Greece, hopelessness had taken root in Athens.
Photo by Gary D. Myers
A woman sleeps on a bench near the Acropolis in Athens. Homelessness is common in the Greek capital and the problem is not limited to the refugee population.
Shackled by a decade-long economic crisis, many Greek people are reportedly without work and the government has been forced to impose stringent austerity measures. Nearly every block in central Athens appears to have an abandoned shop, hotel or apartment building. The once-grand buildings of central Athens, occupied or not, are covered with graffiti and protest posters.
The fragile economy buckled under the mass migration of refugees. Thousands of refugees are living as squatters in the abandoned hotels and apartment buildings which dot central Athens, according to media reports. All but a few reportedly lack the proper paperwork to work in Greece or immigrate to another country – they are simply stuck in Athens.
The influx of outsiders has appeared to change the landscape of Athens. Just a short walk from the Parthenon and the Greek parliament building, the streets are lined with shops catering to a wide range of cultures – slowly replacing Greek-focused cafes and shops. And while many Greeks are sympathetic to the plight of the refugees, native Athenians are weary from the rapid cultural changes.
Seeds planted in good soil
The refugee crisis first gained worldwide exposure when Syrian refugees – fleeing the Islamic State group and their own government – began arriving by boat on Greek shores. Edens expected to encounter more Arabic speakers during the trip. And while many Arabic speakers are still in Greece, many have found their way to other countries, some have returned to Syria.
Up to 70 percent of the refugees that that NOBTS team encountered were Farsi speakers from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, according to the team’s report. Most were highly-educated and worked in prestigious jobs before leaving their homelands. Some left due to sectarian struggles; many of the Afghanis and Iraqis were forced to flee due to their support of the coalition forces fighting against terrorism.
Edens noted the “seed is being sown, and we saw the seed fall on some really good soil.”
“There is an open door in Athens,” he said. “The gospel could go from Athens as a hub, throughout the world. The gospel is moving in the Farsi-speaking world in tremendous ways.”
While the Farsi speakers seemed to be especially open to the gospel, the mission team found receptive hearts in every segment of the refugee community. Some refused the offer of an SD card when the team explained that the movie was about Jesus. But rejections of the free movie were rare, the team reported. In just four days, the team distributed approximately 1,600 copies of the film.
Some who watched the movie came back with a completed survey about the film. Those who returned the survey received a small gift, but they also left contact information for the follow-up team working with Savo. The film was particularly moving to one Pakistani man who wrote in his survey, “this movie should be shown throughout the world.” His other survey answers revealed a heart that was open to the gospel.
While no one made a commitment to Christ during the distribution, members of the NOBTS had many gospel conversations with refugees. On several occasions, refugees allowed team members to pray for them in the busy, public square. The prayers always included a request that God would reveal the truth of the gospel to that individual.
The end goal – baptized believers
Just before the team left Greece, a Southern Baptist partner in the region invited the NOBTS team to participate in a baptism service for four former Muslims who had accepted the gospel after arriving in Athens. The new believers were baptized in the ancient port of Cenchrea, which sits on the Saronic Gulf just five miles from ancient Corinth. The Apostle Paul embarked from Cenchrea in Acts 18:18 on his way to Ephesus.
In this historic setting, four believers proclaimed their commitment to Christ. One woman who was baptized said that before she fled her country, she had everything the world could offer except true hope. Now, stripped of all the material things she once enjoyed, the woman praised God for the new hope she has in Jesus.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Gary D. Myers is the director of communications at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.)