A Christian Response to Persecution as Refugees Flee Ukraine

In response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Australia this week announced a special intake of Ukrainian refugees on top of our existing allocation, as the United Nations predicts as many as 4 million people could ultimately be displaced from the conflict.

Australian Christians welcomes this announcements, and supports the resettlement of Ukrainians in Australia — especially with the news that religious Ukrainians may be special targets of Russia’s invading forces.

Religious persecution is a growing concern globally. Open Doors recently released its 2022 ‘World Watch List’ — a persecution index relied on globally that identifies the 50 countries where life is most difficult for Christians.

In the top ten are Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran and India, where Christians suffer “extreme” levels of persecution. For the first time in twenty years, North Korea was overtaken in first place by Afghanistan, due mostly to the chaotic withdrawal of Western powers last year. While Ukraine didn’t make the list, we may see that change in the year ahead.

The World Watch List, released via virtual press conference hosted by Open Doors CEO David Curry, provides Western believers with a stark reminder about the challenge of global persecution. It also reminds us just how blessed we are to live in a country like Australia.

A powerful theme through Scripture is that God’s people are blessed to be a blessing. We see this first in the life of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). And while the nation of Israel often failed to live up to this calling, Jesus renewed these promises to God’s people when he tasked the church with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).

Since Federation in 1901, Australia has welcomed almost one million refugees. Millions more have settled here as migrants, such that almost a third of our population was born overseas: a high rate by OECD standards. As a result, Australia is an ethnically diverse land that has been enriched by cultures from every corner of the globe.

While economic and geopolitical factors have driven a lot of these developments, Australia’s ability to integrate so many diverse people the way we have is at least partly owing to our Christian heritage. Jesus’ love for the foreigner and his affirmation of the Image of God in every person have long inspired Christians and church NGOs to assist refugees and migrants in settling and integrating.

With increasing geopolitical stability in Ukraine and elsewhere — and especially as the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities worsens — it is important for the church to remain proactive.

The example of Jesus should lead us to advocate for generous refugee quotas that specifically target those facing persecution in their home countries. It is likely that many Christians will be among this number, given that some 80 per cent of those suffering religious persecution are followers of Jesus. It goes without saying that we should not use creed, race or nationality as a test of an asylum seeker’s eligibility.

Christians are also right in raising their voice for the humane treatment of asylum seekers. Deterring human traffickers and would-be ‘economic refugees’ should not come at the cost of inhumanity towards those already here.

The other side of the debate, often forgotten, is that of national sovereignty. Australia’s leaders have an obligation to protect our people. This does not mean that we view every potential entrant to our country a threat, but it does mean giving place to genuine refugees while screening out those who would take advantage or (in rare cases) pose a threat to Australia’s security.

To even suggest this is controversial in some circles, but it needn’t be. By way of analogy, loving parents seeking to adopt a child would prioritise the safety of their own children in making their decision. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise — and the same holds true at a national level.

The simple fact is many people who do not face danger or persecution would love to call Australia home — and some would be willing to take risks to move here if Australia had no disincentives in place. What deserves our attention is the nature of those deterrents, and of course the need to prioritise those genuinely in need of asylum.

In short, Christians must avoid the trap of tribal politics. Refugee policy can be a complex challenge and it isn’t helped by reactively lenient — or suspicious — mindsets. But it deserves our attention because the need is real, and God cares about each precious soul. If this is true in normal circumstances, it is especially the case when war breaks out.

The challenge also goes deeper for followers of Jesus. Once migrants and refugees have arrived in Australia, what is our posture towards them? How are we welcoming them and helping them to feel like a valued part of Australian society?

And how are we praying for those facing persecution where they are? As Hebrews 13:3 urges us, “Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

Suffering and persecution make for a messy world, and our prayers are with the people of Ukraine today. Praise God that our Saviour faced the worst persecution imaginable for us, and has equipped us with all we need to face suffering well, and to be a blessing to those who need it.

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