by Rev Dr Jeremy Ive
In early September, Western Europe was galvanized by the heartrending photograph of a policeman carrying the drowned body of Aylan Kurdi, three, who with his brother Galip, five, were washed up on the beach of the Turkish holiday resort of Bodrum, prompting an international outpouring of sympathy for the plight of children caught in the refugee crisis.
What is not mentioned so much is that the two little brothers were Kurds, a people deprived of their homeland and divided between the countries of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This was the culmination of a process beginning with the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement whereby the British and the French carved up the former Turkish territories between them, resulting in the two modern artificial creations of Syria and Iraq.
The Turkish Kurds
The Turkish Kurds have been fighting for their self-determination, often with terrorist tactics, although more recently it seemed that there was the possibility for dialogue, which has sadly now receded. The Iraqi Kurds were subject to a serious of genocidal assaults by Saddam Hussein, most notoriously at Halabja when thousands were gassed in 1988. They were saved from mass extermination only by international intervention during and after the first Gulf War of 1991.
The Syrian Kurds
The Syrian Kurds have suffered the depredations of so-called Islamic State, the most brutal and vicious criminal movement seen so far this century, operating under flag of Islam, the not least in the town of Kobani, on the Turkish Syrian border from which the two little brothers came. Kobani was occupied by IS and won back at great cost by the Kurds, only to suffer further incursions by IS in its domination of North Syria and Iraq. Despite some very inadequate help from the international community, the Kurds have continued to fight on. Iraqi Kurdistan has been able largely to escape the sectarian violence which has devastated the rest of Iraq, and it is almost the sole secure refuge for the Christians and other religious minorities who have been driven out of the rest of Iraq and Syria. Indeed the Kurds themselves are the only secure bulwark in the region against IS. However, they still remain without a secure national home. For that reason many Kurds, along with other refugees have attempted to make the difficult and dangerous journey to Europe.
Peace in the Middle East
The peace of the world is indivisible. The poet John Donne, wrote:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
I fear that peacebuilding has a very low priority against the felt need of the moment, and the felt need only comes to the fore to the wider public in a sporadic and rather belated way, and very few questions are asked about the reasons behind what is happening. The refugee crisis is only a symptom of the much deeper crisis which is happening in the Middle East and elsewhere, and for every tragic death seen on our television screens, there are thousands, indeed millions of deaths in conflicts which the public knows or, largely, cares, little about, and to which the politicians too often seek merely clichéd and empty slogans, and when they do act, do so in ways which create even greater suffering than before.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs operates, and the greatest desire of refugees fleeing a conflict is for basic security, food and lodging – and people in Europe, especially Germany are reaching out to them, although other countries, including our own, have been more reluctant. But the greatest longing and desire of the refugees is for where they have come from; and Aylan and Gallip’s father has gone back to his shattered town to rebuild his life and that of his people. The greatest need is for peace in the Middle East, including a secure national home for all the Kurds, along with all the other peoples in that troubled region.
Hope in times of crisis
In Isaiah 35 we read of the prophet’s hope against all hope: the people who have been torn away from their homeland will return with singing. The depredations of those who threatened their lives will be stopped, and the threats to their security will be silenced. The sign of God’s kingdom will be both a restoration of the land and a healing of the people: a physical healing certainly, but also a psychological restoration: gladness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and sighing will flee away.
This is taken up by Jesus. He crossed boundaries to help people where they are. He is not a soft touch (and his seemingly harsh words to the woman in the Gentile area of Syro-Phoenecia, now the Lebanon, have caused many to wonder), but he addressed and responds to people where they are. After his visit to Syro-Phonecia, he goes to the Decapolis, the Gentile area on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Having driven an evil spirit out of the daughter of the Syro-Phonecian woman in response to her faith (Mark 7:25-30), he the touches the deaf and dumb man in the Decapolis. He gives himself in reaching out to others beyond the borders. But his reaching out is more than a response to individual need. It is also a sign that the Kingdom is for all people as they encounter and have faith in him – regardless of background.
Jesus dies for the cruel criminal mass murderers of IS, just as he did for all others in the world. He loves all peoples: Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Germans, English, Scots, and Welsh. We can too easily set the felt need of the moment against the long-term vision – but in Jesus the two are held together. We must help those who come to us in need – the refugees fleeing danger and persecution, the hungry, homeless and distressed. But we also need to address the need for world peace. This sounds like an enormous and indeed impossible task, but is none the less necessary and needs equal and urgent support. There is need for skilled and careful surgery just as there is need for first aid, and a sticking plaster is not necessarily going to cure a septic wound.
Addressing the situation
We live in an image-dominated society and a sound-bite culture, and what we see on our television screens can too easily dominate our thinking and drive out thinking more deeply about how best to address the situations in the world: and if we do not address what is happening elsewhere in the world in a careful, thoughtful and generous way, the rest of the world will come to our doorstep, as is happening now. Like our master, let us make peace a priority: shalom – not merely the absence of war, but the foundations for a sound and just order in which all can live in harmony and security. This may seem like an impossible ideal – but in truth, is the only practical way forward.
This is hard work. The great theologian Karl Barth said that we need to live with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We need to have and develop a Christian mind, not just about our personal lives, but also about a Christian vision for society. And above all we need to pray for the peace of the world, so that we can work wisely and with foresight, grappling with the deeper questions about what we see on our television screens and in the newspapers.
We can be encouraged by the vision which we find in the book of Revelation of God’s rule being established here on earth, with Jesus at the centre of this new order. We read:
“The nations will live by his light [that is, of Christ] and the nations of the earth will bring their splendour into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for their there will be no night there. The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it …” (Rev 21:24-26)
This is the welcome of God in Christ which is offered to all of every nation and background, the ultimate basis for the peace and security of the whole world.