I am an ordained Churches of Christ* minister in Australia who has experienced engagement with refugee resettlement and advocacy over the most part of four decades. Various congregations I have served have led the housing, equipping, and orientation of families from Vietnam, Laos, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. We have befriended those whose faith backgrounds have been Buddhist, Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic. Where possible and appropriate, we have eventually been able to refer families and individuals to their own faith communities.
This ministry—which only nibbles at the edge of the growing world refugee crisis—is necessarily ecumenical, pooling the resources of churches through the Australian National Council of Churches and what is now its National Refugee Task Force. A number of Eastern Christian Churches are represented on the Council: the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Assyrian Church of the East, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Indian Orthodox Church, the Mar Thoma Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the Syrian Orthodox Church. [Editors’ note: Notably absent from the list is the Russian Orthodox Church’s Australian and New Zealand Diocese.]
Whereas my church’s ministries have been concerned with the practical welfare of sustaining and introducing refugee families toward full participation in the wider community, the tightening of government policies has moved the shift of church focus to advocacy. The political perception of being overwhelmed by an influx of irregular arrivals by sea is the drive behind tougher government action.
As draconian off-shore detention and deterrent measures have taken their effect over the last four years, churches have continued to speak out individually and through the National Council of Churches Refugee Task Force for basic humanitarian welfare. Last year the Task Force invited churches to register and train members of their congregations as sanctuary providers for approved asylum seekers, even though these remain in danger of deportation and even refoulement. Although the sanctuary concept has no standing under Australian law, it is seen as a means by which churches can express prophetic protest.
In Perth, Western Australia, my current calling, I have enjoyed particular engagement with the Syrian Orthodox and Coptic Orthodox communions, both of which are relatively small in number and which experience challenges peculiar to their communities, yet common to each other.
Both communities endure the hardship of homeland persecution, yet see few asylum seekers being settled from these regions. Both are experiencing the anguish and despair of witnessing the destruction of ancient holy places alongside unimaginable loss of life and the evisceration of ancient Christian proclamation in hometowns and villages. Both are generous and faithful to the Christian witness of loving the enemy, willing to do good to those who despitefully use them.
Patient resilience is a characteristic of both. It is now past four years since Syriac and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi were abducted on 22 April 2013 in Syria near the Turkish border. In their Paschal message this year, the two Patriarchs of Antioch, Greek Orthodox Yohanna X and Syrian Orthodox Mar Ignatios Aphrem II, reflected on the fate of their colleagues and reminded the faithful that nothing would drive them out of the land:
We are staying here next to the tombs of our fathers, and their hallowed ground. We are deeply rooted in the womb of this East.
Deep witness and embodiment of the Way of Christ is expressed in the words of His Grace, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK, following recent terrorist attacks in London as he addressed the perpetrators:
You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved. You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, Who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.
The presence of the Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical community seasons our service and witness amongst asylum seekers and refugees with ancient wisdom and expressions of courage and love in the face of adversity.
What challenges face our Orthodox brothers and sisters? Far be it from me, who am privileged to have been in the right spot at the right time to eat the crumbs that fall from their table, to attempt to articulate what best arises from reflection and critique within the intimacy of their own communions.
The voices I hear from within Orthodoxy, however, have challenged the limitations of ethnocentricity, an over-emphasis on ritualism, and, in some quarters, the pride of exclusivism. My own observation is that, as debilitating as these challenges are in impeding Christian witness and service, they are common to any immigrant community seeking to find its place in a strange land. The maintaining of identity through familiar rites and guarding against the disintegration of the old, while accommodating the new with integrity, is a quest common to peoples making their home in a new place. In my view, these very challenges afford Orthodox communities in Australia an empathy with refugee communities that is not necessarily available in the same way to other Christian communions. Within perceived weaknesses are hidden strengths.
The world refugee crisis continues to grow, and does not look like lessening any time soon. People will continue to seek asylum from human conflict and natural disaster. Together we respond to the One who declares, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
*Churches of Christ in Australia are part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement typified in the USA by the Disciples of Christ, Christian Church, and Churches of Christ streams.
Dennis Ryle is an ordained minister of Churches of Christ in Australia. He studied at the College of the Bible in Glen Iris, Victoria, under the auspices of the Melbourne College of Divinity (now University of Divinity), where his Master of Ministry remains uncompleted. He has two Graduate Diplomas in Ministry and a Graduate Diploma in Christian Education. He is in his fifth pastoral appointment, where he is about to complete 22 years.