The speed and disruptive force of the lightning offensive spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has caught the world by storm and has made ISIS the latest fixation of the international media.
It’s no coincidence that, according to the latest report by the UN refugee agency, the global number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced peoples has reached its highest levels since World War II.
The evidence is clear — radicalism is on the rise.
For those of us trying to operate in these fragile states, our on-the-ground partners remind us of three important themes:
1. Disaffected youth are the key.
Whether it be Al Qaeda, ISIS or Boko Haram, the lifeblood of these movements is their ability to recruit from an almost limitless pool of disenfranchised young men.
Why did a humble Tunisian fruit vendor’s desperate act of setting himself on fire start a wildfire throughout the Arab World that toppled or threatened numerous regimes?
Countless millions of young people throughout the region deeply resonated with his story of unemployment, lack of opportunities, unjust treatment, hopelessness, and rage.
There is no more critical time for the Church to reach, disciple, and empower youth.
I was sobered by the story I heard this week by friends at a leadership development ministry who arrived in Jos, Nigeria shortly after 118 people — mostly Christians — were killed by a car bomb attack in May.
They happened upon a group of youth from a local church who were gathered near their training site. This band of bible-owning, church-attending youth were plotting to target Muslims in murderous retaliation.
In a country wracked by the legacy of a 26-year civil war, my friend, Prashan De Visser, has mobilized thousands of youth in every district and from all ethnic and religious groups of Sri Lanka in a movement that provides hope and promotes reconciliation.
While the majority of his passionate group of volunteers are Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim, this Christian man in his twenties has captivated them with a vision of a New Jerusalem.
2. Non-extremists are the majority.
Local communities pay a high price for militant violence, especially for those who reside where radical groups have their bases.
While there may be pockets of support for radical groups, most local people oppose terrorism and support the basic rights of the “other.” This opens the way for diverse coalitions to form to counteract extremism.
When we helped gather Muslim and Christian human rights lawyers and activists from Sudan, some of the participants reported that it was “impossible and unimaginable” that Christians could work together or agree with Muslims on issues of religious freedom.
Deep friendships did form, however, and the group worked together to draft a constitutional provision on religious freedom. When they returned to Sudan, they also suffered together, experiencing detentions, beatings, and harassment.
In cases like that of Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was sentenced to death for “apostasy” and forced to give birth in prison, Muslim advocates were undoubtedly instrumental in freeing her.
Amidst a deteriorating situation in South Sudan, my friend, Reverend Tut, is not waiting for a fragile and divided government to broker interethnic peace in flashpoint areas of his country.
He has assembled a broad, cross-denominational, multiethnic coalition of church actors to facilitate a grassroots peace and reconciliation process.
In South Sudan, the church is a far more respected institution at the local level than the government and has capacity to effect bottom-up change.
3. Small actors can play a major role.
Without a doubt, international diplomacy and pressure, institution-building, and, at times, even military action can be necessary components of seeing lasting peace achieved.
Waiting for a political or military solution then leaves millions to live through an indeterminately lengthy crisis. And when one single UN agency can consume the entire resources of many private foundations in a matter of months (UNHCR for example spent $5.3 billion last year), it is difficult to think that smaller actors can effect change.
While a large agency provides a much-needed infrastructure — I’m grateful, for example, for the system of UN planes and helicopters that in some areas are my only transportation option — there are severe limitations. Local groups can fill gaps in critical ways.
In an ironic twist, refugees fleeing the violence in South Sudan have flooded across the border into Sudan. In a modest room is a stockpile of relief items given by poor immigrants and refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Why were these poor and persecuted Christians the first to help these South Sudan refugees? In their words:
We remember when we were refugees, and the Sudanese churches gave us food when we were running for the lives of our women and children.”
Born as the eldest son to a Muslim family in Iraq, Ahmed was distrustful of other religions. At the onset of the Iraqi war, Ahmed fled Iraq, his homeland, as a refugee seeking asylum. Vulnerable and on the road, he and his family came in contact with a variety of refugee ministries during his passage through Jordan to Athens, and eventually on to Amsterdam where they settled.
Valued as a person, Ahmed found that the refugee workers were far more than philanthropic do-gooders handing out food and coffee. They were genuinely there to help in all aspects of his family’s life. The Gospel was shown and demonstrated. He went to Christian centers that cooperatively offered meals, showers, clothing, language training, and programs for his wife and children.
He saw that the different people and groups he had met along the way knew of each other and even worked together. They were coordinating their work through relationships established within the Refugee Highway Partnership.
Coming alongside organized networks of these local actors can be a timely and highly effective way of bringing lifesaving support to the vulnerable and displaced.
As we attempt to engage in these conflict zones, I’m grateful for this wisdom shared by courageous friends who live and work in these areas.
RELEVANT GLOBAL TRENDS
As we continue to watch these situations develop and pray for peace in these regions, there are opportunities to learn of practical ways to make a difference.
World Evangelical Alliance’s United Nations Team is hosting a FREE webinar on
The Global Refugee Crisis and the Local Church
that will include participants representing local churches and Christian agencies concerned about the world’s global refugee crisis on Tuesday, July 1, 2014 at 10am EDT.
RSVP by June 29 at: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/training/form.htm.
Registration code: grace.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for questions.