The Redeemer whom God had promised to send for so many years was finally born in Bethlehem, the city of David, yet he was threatened with death from the day he was born. His mother, Mary, and Joseph had to flee their homeland, much like the Christian refugees of today have been forced to flee the homelands they have lived in for 2,000 years.
“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.’” (Matthew 2:13 NKJV)
Jesus, as a small boy, knew the pain of fleeing a bloody land where the innocent were slaughtered. He saw the terror in His mother’s eyes as his family fled at night, hurriedly and quietly under the cover of darkness for fear of discovery. A death sentence had been issued by Herod the Great for him and every male child under the age of 2.
“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.” (Matthew 2:6)
Just as Satan tried to destroy the Christ child through human instruments, so he has been on a campaign ever since to destroy the church of Jesus Christ. One of the very first churches founded outside of Israel was in Damascus, Syria, about 130 miles from Jerusalem where our Savior sacrificed himself on the Cross that we all might have life eternal with God the Father. We know about the faithful Syrian congregation because the zealous rabbi Saul was on his way to Damascus to arrest believers there when he encountered the risen Christ. It was in Damascus where God changed Saul’s name to Paul and equipped him for the mission of evangelizing the Gentiles.
In Syria, the church grew quickly until it and the surrounding countries were overrun by conquering Muslim armies in the seventh century. For almost 1,400 years the church existed under the heavy yolk of their Islamic overlords, seen as outcast “dhimmi” and second-class citizens. Still, they were in most times tolerated to one degree or another. Not since the original Muslim conquest have Christians in Syria been as brutally targeted as they are today. All over the country, Christian neighborhoods, churches and schools lie in heaps of rubble, and people fear to walk the streets in broad daylight. Just on one day, Nov. 12, two separate Christian schools in Damascus were fired on by rebels with mortars, killing and wounding many children.
It is not only Syrian Christians who have come to the refugee camps of Jordan seeking safety. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians fled Iraq during their civil war to a supposed “safe haven” in Syria. Now they, too, must flee again to Lebanon, Jordan, or whatever small places of relative safety are left in the chaotic Middle East.
The children in the refugee camps in Jordan that we will be ministering to have escaped death, and for the most part physical wounds. Yet they still bear wounds in their hearts and minds from all the fear and confusion they have seen, and from the pains of hunger and homelessness.
Jesus has always been present for those who were refugees or “outsiders.” During his ministry on Earth, He constantly came to the side of those who were supposedly “outcasts,” whether they were women, foreigners, sinners such as adulterers, or even tax collectors.
Most Christian refugees today are “outsiders,” as was Jesus. His allegiance was not to this world. Like the Christians of today who are fleeing Islamic oppression, Jesus was an outsider in a strange land, for his true home was not of this world, but heavenly.
“He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11)
Jesus identifies Himself spiritually with our brothers and sisters who are persecuted and in flight even today. In Matthew 25, He said that anyone who showed mercy to those in need was somehow showing it to Him.
“For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in;” (Matthew 25:35 NKJV)
As Christians, we must reach out to our brothers and sisters in Jesus who are suffering. While evangelism is important, aiding our family in Jesus is also commanded in the Scriptures.
Of the millions of refugees in the world, MANY are our “brothers and sisters” in the Lord! As history repeats itself, many Christian refugees face the ultimate affliction themselves. Jesus foresaw and related to their suffering:
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.” ( Matthew 24:9)
As we here in the United States gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, in what is still for the most part a free, law-abiding and bountiful country, we should pause to remember our fellow believers who have no settled home, no place of real safety for themselves and their children, not even enough to eat.
Christians are the most persecuted group in the world today, and not just in these Muslim nations. Christians suffer in such diverse places as India and North Korea as well.
It is our turn to sacrifice for our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We are not yet required to give our lives for our faith, but we should be willing to give of our fortunes to feed and clothe our fellow believers who have seen their neighbors, even family members murdered; who have been threatened and forced from their homes after watching centuries-old church buildings being desecrated and looted.
Yes, evangelism is important, but making the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters a little more bearable is at least equally important. As the Christ child reached out to touch each of us, so then should we reach out and touch the lives of those in the persecuted and suffering church in the Middle East.
Note: Murray is the project director of Christmas for Refugees, which is sponsoring Christmas meals for refugee children from Iraq and Syria this December.