Syrian refugee sees 'joy' at Baptist church

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP) -- When Syrian refugee Mohammad heard the choir sing at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., he remarked, "I don't know if I believe what they say, but they sure do have a lot of joy."

Johnson Ferry Baptist Church pastor Bryant Wright recalled the story as the church continues to help Mohammad, his wife Ebtesam and their 4-year-old son Hasan settle in the Atlanta area.

"We thought that was significant because he hasn't seen much joy," Wright, former Southern Baptist Convention president, told Baptist Press. "The Muslim refugees in Syria are just so weary of the hatred and the violence within Islam that obviously they are open as never before to the Gospel, which is very exciting to see."

The family was approved for entry into the U.S. after spending nearly three years in a refugee camp in Jordan, denied certain freedoms, forbidden to work while there and dependent upon siblings in the United Arab Emirates for income. They are hopeful their lives in the U.S. will be different, Wright said, even though there is a growing mistrust and fear of Syrian Muslims in America.

"The overwhelming majority are truly victims of the violence in the war of Islam and the Syrian civil war," Wright said of Syrians.

As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, more than 10 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, according to December numbers from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). About 4.3 million have fled to neighboring countries, 6.5 million are displaced internally and a total of 13.5 million are in need of humanitarian aid, OCHA reported. A quarter million have been killed.

"Christ calls on us in the old covenant and in the new covenant, to care for the widow, the orphaned and the alien or stranger, which is another word that we would use today as immigrant or refugee," Wright said. "So we're just called to do what Jesus and the Word of God teaches us to do in sharing the love of Christ with people in need."

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal is among governors trying to ban Syrian refugees from settling in their states following the Nov. 13 ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris. It was later reported one of the terrorists may have accessed Paris as a Syrian refugee. And concerns toward terrorism continue to mount after the Dec. 2 shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif., committed by a radical U.S. Muslim and his wife, who entered the U.S. from Saudi Arabia on a 'fiancée' Visa. The couple killed 14 and injured 21 at the husband's place of employment before police killed them as they tried to flee their home hours later. Investigators learned the couple had pledged allegiance to ISIS, according to news reports.

U.S. mistrust of Syrians is further evidenced by Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump's rise in popularity after he said Syrian refugees should be blocked from entering the country. He is now the front presidential hopeful in the Republican presidential primary race that draws many evangelical Christians. See related stories here and here.

Wright told BP he believes Trump's popularity is partly because many Americans have grown weary of political correctness.

"Political correctness is man's replacement of biblical morality, for man-based morality," he said. "It is insidious, political correctness is, because its intentions are good, to end discrimination, but it winds up being incredibly oppressive to the average citizen.

"What we need is Christ-centered biblical morality, not political correctness. That is a man-invented idolatrous ideology," he said.

Wright noted he fully understands the risk of terrorism and respects government's role to protect the citizenry. After Georgia's governor announced a ban on Syrian refugees in the state, Wright wrote the governor a letter explaining that his church had already made plans to help Muhammad and his family in partnership with World Relief ministries.

"[The governor's] role is different," Wright said. "Romans 13 teaches the role of government is to protect the citizens, to administer justice and to punish evil. I certainly understand his concern. [I] don't agree with it, but I understand he's in a different position from where the Christian and the church are to respond to refugees in need. There is risk and people are scared to death in America today, understandably, because Islamic terrorism is a very real threat. But that doesn't remove the calling we have to minister to refugees in need."

In addition to sharing the Gospel with Muhammad's family, teaching them English and helping them understand the culture, Johnson Ferry Baptist Church is helping the family with living expenses. Wright described the family, whose last name is withheld, as hopeful, despite the backlash they may experience in the U.S.

"They're very hopeful coming to America," he said of the family. "In light of what they have lived through, with relatives and friends being shot and killed and bombed, and then living in just desolate conditions there in Jordan.

"... We have told them about the backlash that they may encounter from Americans who are so afraid right now with Islamic terrorism being such a real threat. So we've tried to prepare them that that could happen," Wright said. "But I don't think they're afraid. In light of what they've lived through, they are greatly relieved to be here."

Wright reached out to World Relief months ago to help Syrian refugees resettle here, he said, and encourages other Christians to do what they can to help the population group.

"I would hope every church would be open to ministering to Syrian refugee families that are in our midst. We're called to share the Good News of Christ and the love of Christ with our neighbor, that's all mankind," he said. "I just hope churches would [embrace] opportunities to minister to these refugees who have faced so much hurt."

Wright points to parables in Matthew 25 which promise God will separate the sheep from goats -- believers from nonbelievers -- and command Christians to help the "least of these."

"I just would encourage churches to reach out in faith in Christ, not fear of man," he said. "I think right now a lot of people are responding in fear."

Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' general assignment writer/editor. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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