In recent weeks, the dramatic news of migrants fleeing the violence in Syria or escaping by boat to ports of entry in Europe has gripped the world’s attention. The story of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi and the picture of his lifeless body washing ashore in Turkey, is a tragic reminder of the cost of this cruel war: 250,000 people dead, four million refugees – half of them children, and 8 million more Syrians internally displaced with little or no hope for peace.
To date, the response of European nations and the United States has been woefully inadequate to the biggest refugee crisis in the world, and some leaders have closed their doors in the name of defending the “Christian” nations of Europe against Muslim refugees. In response, Pope Francis has asked churches in Europe to offer “concrete hope” by providing shelter for Syrian refugees.
The United States and Great Britain, while generous in their humanitarian aid to the refugees, have only offered to accept a few thousand Syrian refugees. Much more needs to be done. For Christians, it means taking seriously the biblical mandate “to welcome” our Muslim sisters and brothers and to work urgently for peace in the Middle East.
Climate Refugees and Peace
But who knows about the environmental roots of that tragic war in Syria? In a recent booklet to accompany a DVD called Conflict and Climate Change, Ellen Teague, media coordinator for the UK region of the Columbans, writes:
“Faced with dwindling profits from oil exports in May 2008, Syria’s government slashed fuel subsidies. The price of petrol tripled overnight, and so did food prices. The crunch came in the context of an intensifying and increasingly regular drought cycle linked to climate change. Between 2002 and 2008, the country’s total water resources dropped by half through both overuse and waste.”
“Once self-sufficient in wheat, Syria became increasingly dependent on more expensive grain imports. The food price hikes triggered protests that evolved into armed rebellion after the government used violence against demonstrators. The rural town of Dara’a, hit by five prior years of drought and water scarcity with little relief from the government, was a focal point for the 2011 protests. Syria’s situation in 2013 was the result of converging climate, oil and debt crises within a politically repressive state.”
Increasingly, global warming and climate change are contributing to melting glaciers, rising sea levels, extreme weather events, food and water shortages, increasing inter-ethnic tensions and violent conflicts over scarce resources. All of this has ultimately forced millions of people to flee their homes and to seek protection as migrants and refugees. It’s all connected.
Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor
More than a century ago, the famous humanitarian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer spoke of his vocation as one of reverence for life. “Reverence for life affords me my fundamental principle of morality, namely, that good consists in maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical “On Care for Our Common Home,” reminds us that we have a special responsibility to the poor and to the planet:
“A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (#49)
Welcoming the stranger with justice and mercy means the silent cry of that three-year old Syrian child must not go unheard. The refugees and victims of war cry out to us from the earth: “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:9) Where is my precious child Aylan? It’s all connected. We are one human family, sisters and brother of one Creator, tied to a common home and entrusted with a mission “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).