8th – 15th November 2020
Woking People of Faith (https://wpof.org.uk)have been promoting a “Buddy” programme for women throughout September and October culminating in Inter Faith Week.
The idea is that ladies partner with someone of a different faith or belief to exchange views and initiate conversations, using social media or telephone, whatever means are most comfortable for them. They will have an opportunity to contribute to a virtual event in Inter Faith Week to share what they have discovered through this contact.
Kawther Akhtar, Surrey Faith Links Adviser, has suggested some possible questions that the buddies might consider together.
How does your faith or non-religious belief shape your daily life – including at this time of COVID-19?
What, in your faith or non-religious belief, encourages service to others in society?
Has COVID-19 brought any lessons about common values and action?
The Covid 19 pandemic has challenged all of us in different ways, through illness, bereavement, loneliness, home schooling, home working, and furlough. In addition government restrictions have meant that people of faith have been unable to worship together in the mosque, the church building or other religious houses. Worship has moved online, via Zoom or pre recorded services, or printed material posted or hand delivered. Faith leaders have had to grapple with these new methods of delivering the message and in many cases this challenge has been met with enthusiasm and thankfulness by leaders and congregations alike. One of the main benefits of online worship has been its accessibility to those who who are unable to physically come to a service.
Places of worship are now opening gradually, practising Covid secure procedures. The latest Government rules announced today are warning of a ban on gatherings over 6 people. There are exemptions, but possibly churches, mosques and other sacred spaces will have to revise their practise again and revert to online delivery of worship.
Whatever the challenges, people of faith can be reassured that God is with us in these difficult times. In the Old Testament Psalm 103 has these comforting words :
v 8 ….the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in love.
Faith informs action, and we have witnessed many faithful people and others inspired to help during this difficult time.
It has been a positive and heartening aspect of the Covid 19 pandemic to see the way in which so many people have helped their neighbours, with shopping, checking on them daily, contacting people to have a chat, using their time and talents to help the NHS (Thank you, Knaphill Syrian refugees who made laundry bags for the NHS staff at St Peter’s), delivering food parcels and generally being more aware of each others’ needs. Kindness and compassion have been expressed between strangers as communities have worked together to deal with the issues raised by the pandemic.
So there is plenty to talk about and share with each other as we contemplate the uncertainty of the months to come and recall with thankfulness the many inspiring stories of human and godly love that have already resulted from the strange times in which we are living.
As people of faith and other beliefs take time to talk to each other, may grace and love be at the heart of all their conversations.
On a beach at Gravelines,
the dawn sunlight touching the waves with gold
I shiver, not from fear,
my jacket’s worn and thin. I’m cold.
The boat’s in the water, the waves not too high.
The traffickers are shouting, come on, get in, this is it, no more chances.
I know that. My money’s gone. This is my third try.
If I look hard, I think I see the cliffs of white
the slightest glimpse of freedom in the early morning light.
Will I drown on the crossing,
will I make it over?
I’ve faced fear before, my home was bombed, my father killed,
my twin brother left for dead
in the street,
I see the blood on his head
on his hands, on his feet.
We survived, we three,
my mother, baby sister Rana, and me.
They cried a lot, but I did not.
We fled our country with other families,
found a damp basement to share,
we were refugees.
I scavenged in the gutters for anything to sell
picked up old cabbage leaves in the market for Mum to cook
took any sort of work, exploited, hardly paid, look
this is no life, she said.
You have to go, for a better future,
but standing on this shore I don’t know anymore.
Sara runs past me, she’s preganant 8 months gone,
her husband follows quickly, he’s sure it will be a son.
They’re clutching bags, a blue blanket, a plastic sack.
All they’ve got now after months of walking and waiting and trying to get a visa.
Their home and shop were destroyed, they won’t go back.
They’re from Syria, I am too.
We didn’t know each other then
but I shared my tent in Calais with them
so now I do.
They’ve got in the boat, they’re smiling with hope.
I feel numb and lost, but I jump in too
with 19 others from Sudan and Yemen Iraq and Syria.
The men we paid laugh, shrug and fling us the rope.
We’re on the sea now and this dinghy is deflating
I can hear the air hissing out but I don’t say anything.
I miss my Mum. she told me to go, it seemed right at the time but now I don’t know.
Will I make it to the UK, will I be safe?
will I get an education, be a doctor, that’s my dream,
will my Mum and sister be able to come,
will I ever be happy again,
will I get a welcome?
I’m freezing, wet through, we’re all frightened,
this rubber boat is sinking fast,
will this day be my last?
Then on the horizon a UK ship appears.
Everyone sees it, everyone cheers.
There are tears
We’re rescued, given a strange sandwich, taken to Dover
My name’s Khalid. I’m fourteen.
This nightmare isn’t over.
There was news this week that the Hagia Sofia, the jewel of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul, is to be turned back into a mosque after 85 years as a carefully non-religious museum. Of course the Hagia Sofia, originally the great cathedral of Eastern Christianity, has been a mosque before. The building’s history mirrors the eclectic past of the city of Istanbul itself – an ancient city where east meets west across the Bosphorus, occupied successively by Greeks and Romans, known as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine in 330, fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, declining in importance over the centuries, so that in 1923 when the modern state of Turkey was formed, it lost its status as a capital city to Ankara. Since 1930 the city has been known by the Turkish name of Istanbul.
The Hagia Sofia, meaning “church of the Holy Wisdom”, is an architectural marvel built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century on the foundations of two earlier churches. The vast interior space was designed to portray “an unearthly mirror of the heavens” (Eyewitness Travel Guide to Turkey) and is truly awe inspiring. The upper walls were once covered entirely in gold Byzantine mosaics and intriguing remnants of these remain, depicting Christ, saints, Mary the mother of Jesus, atchangels, emperors and six-winged seraphim. But the great dome itself is decorated with Koranic verses and 8 massive round wooden plaques in the nave show calligraphic inscriptions of the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four Muslim Caliphs and two of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons.
This magnificent church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed in 1453 and the golden mosaics of Justinian and his Empress Theodora, the Virgin Mary and the painted seraphim were covered up for centuries. When Kemal Mustafa Ataturk founded modern Turkey he wanted to turn the nation towards the West and away from strict Islamic rules. So he imposed secularism on the state and Hagia Sofia became a museum. The Christian decor was uncovered and for 85 years visitors to this imposing building have been able to view Islamic and Christian art side by side in this wonderful setting.
Now once again Turkey is seeing change, in a determined swing back towards a stricter Islamic culture, and the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed that the Hagia Sofia become a mosque once again. The Christian images will be covered up during prayer times. Women will be expected to wear headscarves.
On Friday July 24th the newly designated msoque was closed to visitors. Soon Islamic prayer will be heard under the soaring arches of the nave. Some Turkish people deplore the abandonment of the former secular status of this iconic building. Supporters of the President and Turkish Muslims are pleased that the Hagia Sofia will be a thriving centre of Islamic worship once again. Some Turkish Christians see this as an attack on their faith.
Visual symbols of the Islamic and Christian faiths and wonderful Islamic and Christian art have been present together in the Hagia Sofia for almost 600 years. Like the city itself, the great cathedral and its four added minarets stand as a monument to the ever changing world in which we live, a world where faiths and people of different faiths should be able to co exist in respectful peace. I hope Christians and every person of faith or no faith will still be able to visit the Hagia Sofia. Not just to be impressed by its matchless architectural beauty but to pause and recognise and to drink in the atmosphere of mystic divinity and religious harmony. The presence of both God and Allah is embedded in its foundations through centuries of prayer and worship and floats unseen but undeniable from its walls, for Hagia Sofia was dedicated in honour of the “holy wisdom” whose divine power and might transcends any human action and will forever outlast human history.
Photo Mark Hargreaves Original text Claire Hargreaves July 2020
180 migrants crossed the Channel in small boats on Sunday 12th July (Home Office figures). This is more people than ever in one day making the dangerous crossing from France across the world’s busiest shipping lane. And these are just the ones who were rescued by the UK Border Force or made it to the UK’s beaches and were picked up there by the authorities. Who knows how many others landed elsewhere and slipped away undetected?
Another 200 people attempting the sea voyage were intercepted by French patrols and returned to France. It is thought that the good weather and the lack of lorry traffic due to the Coronavirus situation has encouraged migrants to risk the Channel crossing. Home Office Minister Priti Patel is keen to ensure that this surge in illegal crossings is stopped and the ruthless exploitation of vulnerable displaced people by smugglers is tackled. She is demanding that France takes fresh action to stop the crossings and take back those who have succeeded in reaching the UK illegally.
The risk to life of these crossings is immense. Boats are inadequate, leaky and dangerously overcrowded. Often there are not enough lifejackets. It is reported that the people smugglers always cynically insist on including one woman and child on each boat so that rescue is more likely.
On Saturday (11th July), 21 migrants in three boats were returned to France. Their boat had capsized and four people were suffering from severe hypothermia as a result.
In August Iranian migrant Mitra Mehrad, 31, tragically lost her life when she and three others fell from a dinghy off the coast of Kent. There were twenty migrants on board the flimsy boat, mostly from Iran and a few from Iraq. Four of them were children. Two survivors were pulled from the water but sadly Mitra Mehrad was lost. The remaining 19 people were taken to Ramsgate. A survivor said later that Ms Mehrad had dived into the water to try and save the two who had fallen overboard.
Every person who gets on a small boat to cross the Channel has a story of a life left behind, of a desperate hope and need to find a better future for themselves and their families. Yes, many have made a choice to leave their home but it has been forced upon them by war, persecution, discrimination, hunger, extreme poverty. Many have been terrified into leaving their homes because of threats to their lives and their children’s safety and future. They are all our neighbours.
A prayer for refugees
Lord Help us to see beyond statistics to the courageous people who are refugees, all with stories of tragedy to tell yet who are still determined to chase the rainbow of hope and life.
Help us to change so that refugees are not seen as problems but as valued people with rich experiences to contribute and who should be treasured as our neighbours, to be loved as we love ourselves.
In Jesus’ name
(references : BBC News; Migrant Watch UK; The Independent; the Home Office.)
(original material Reverend Claire Hargreaves)
We could all benefit from hearing some good news during the Coronavirus pandemic so I am so pleased to be able to share two uplifting stories from refugees.
Firstly some Syrian refugees settled in Surrey were delighted to receive a kind gift of several sewing machines recently, and they have been industriously making clothes for their families and friends. During the Coronavirus lockdown their council key worker encouraged them to make laundry bags for the NHS. They were really pleased to do this and said they were glad of the opportunity to “give something back”.
Secondly the refugees in Za’atari Camp, Jordan have been in a very secure lockdown and all outside humanitarian aid workers were not allowed to enter the camp. So the refugee volunteers in the Peace Oasis on the camp showed their resilience and innovation by organising themselves to deliver online training and education via video. This was difficult, they told me, as using the technology was a big learning curve for them and the internet signal on the camp is weak. Also not very many of the refugees have Smart phones or computers in their homes. But they managed to deliver online training for their sewing classes, IT work, and even Zumba classes and children’s education and games! So well done to everyone involved in keeping up this vital work!
Now the lockdown restrictions have eased and the aid workers allowed back in again so full programmes are running once more. These educational and pyscho-social classes are so important in building skills, confidence and wellbeing.
Teenagers love the music classes where they choose to sing Syrian songs to keep their culture and tradition alive.
“And who is my neighbour?”
“And who is my neighbour?” asked the teacher of the law. (v29). In response to this question, Jesus tells the story of the traveller, robbed and beaten on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. The man was left injured and bleeding on the side of the road. Who stopped to help him? Not the priest, or the Levite, passers-by who might have been expected to assist someone in need, but a Samaritan. He was the last person a Jew would have thought might help him. Jews and Samaritans harboured a deeply held hatred of each other.
Yet the Samaritan picked up the injured Jew, bathed his wounds, took him to a place of shelter and organised his care.
After he had told this parable, Jesus asked the teacher of the law which of the three was a neighbour to the assaulted man? The teacher answered correctly but could not bring himself to say the hated name “The Samaritan”, instead saying “the one who had mercy on him”. (v37)
“Who is my neighbour?” is a question we need to ask ourselves when confronted by the increasing numbers of migrants and refugees, people so threatened by war, hunger, persecution or discrimination that they have no choice but to leave their homes, livelihoods and countries behind and seek refuge in another country.
Our neighbours are global; it is a small world, brought together by technology that allows us to see and hear situations and people in faraway places. So refugees from Syria are just as much our neighbours as the family who live next door. The Rohingyas forced out of their villages in Myanmar and living in cramped and unhygienic conditions in Cox’s Bazaar are just as much our concern as the homeless man in a sleeping bag on our street.
Refugees run great risks and suffer enormous hardship to reach what is sometimes a fragile safety. They are on a journey to the rainbow’s end with hope in their hearts for a better future. Here are the stories of two such resilient refugees whom I met on a refugee training course for electricians** in Marka, in 2017.
Mohammed Shada Ayash is a 52 year old from Da’ra in Syria. He had been in Jordan four and a half years, forced to seek refuge in Jordan by the war and threat of terrorism. He was a car mechanic who owned his own garage in Da’ra so in the beginning it was difficult as a refugee, to have nothing. Mohammed suffers from cancer and is unable to do the heavy manual work which is the only (illegal) work available. So he took the chance to retrain as an electrician and hopes to find employment to enable him to support his family. His dream is to return to Syria one day when the war is over.
Mohammed Nazal is also from Da’ra. He is 16 years old. His father was killed in Syria. As the oldest child of the family he is the breadwinner for his five younger siblings and his mother who is unwell. He has some (illegal) work at a gas station. Most of his earnings goes on rent. His dream is to leave the Middle East and go to the USA.
Mohammed Shada Ayash and Mohammed Nazal
During the Coronavirus epidemic, refugees in Jordan have been caring for each other. In Za’atari Camp, Jordan home to 80,000 refugees, they are trying to ensure social distancing by marking out spots on the ground outside the camp supermarket and by making and distributing soap to ensure hygiene. (pic.twitter.com/vxrtWrJHwg (UNHCR @refugees March 29 2020). In Azraq Camp, Jordan, a drawing by Zeinab a 12 year old Syrian refugee, shows how the Taekwondo enthusiast plans on fighting the Covid 19 virus. pic.twitter.com/Gtlaswr8W5 (UNHCR Ireland @UNHCRireland 7 April 2020)
Our neighbours are next door, on the street, across the sea and worldwide. Jesus calls us to love them all, as we love ourselves.
At the beginning of April, one of the prescribed readings in the Methodist Church lectionary was taken from The Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament writings of the Bible. It seemed particularly appropriate for the dark times the world is living through at the moment.
There is much lament surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of people are ill; many, far too many, have died; countries’ economies are at a standstill as people endure the difficulties of lockdown, confined to their homes. It is a human reaction to lament, to grieve, at such a serious and widespread situation.
The author of Lamentations, Jeremiah “the weeping prophet”, had cause to lament. His nation of Judah had been defeated by the Babylonians, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, the people exiled. This had happened just as Jeremiah had predicted, a consequence of the people rebelling against God. The prophet’s tears were not for himself, but for his broken people.
But in the midst of all this sorrow, there was a bright ray of hope. In his darkest moment Jeremiah recalled God’s promise of future hope and restoration through his grace and unfailing love. He found a chink of light that turned his tears to praise as he recognised that God would always be faithful to his people.
The British soldiers who liberated the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp exactly 75 years ago on April 15th 1945 found much to cause them to lament. The veteran war reporter Richard Dimbleby gave a graphic account of the horrific scene that the soldiers encountered – bodies strewn on the ground, emaciated faces at the windows of the wooden huts, starved people too weak to come outside.
Belsen was the first visual confirmation of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The stories of those who survived, and those who perished, deserve to be remembered in honour and retold in ways that inform us today.
Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators in the Holocaust. On April 20th their lives will be remembered worldwide in the annual Jewish remembrance day Yom HaShoah.
Many people who have lost relatives to Coronavirus are unable to grieve with their families and friends and share memories together while in lockdown. It is a time of lamentation for people and lives and time lost.
Jeremiah found some light in the darkness. The courage of Jewish Holocaust survivors, some still telling their stories today to inform the world of what took place and to guard against it ever happening again, is also a bright light shining in the dark.
The dedication of NHS staff and kindness of strangers during this pandemic is a beacon of light for all.
Let Jeremiah have the last word, for he found that even in the depths of his sorrow there was still reason to proclaim God’s unfailing love and grace.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
they are new every morning:
great is your faithfulness.
(The Book of Lamentations 3.22,23)
Who knows how many refugees are suffering already from Covid-19 ? If this virus takes hold in overcrowded and often unsanitary camps, where refugees have little or no access to medical care, the effect will be devastating. Refugees are some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Many have already experienced the terror of fleeing for their lives from war and violence. Now there is a new threat to their fragile existence with Coronavirus. How do you practise social distancing or self-isolation when “home” is a plastic sheet or a flimsy shelter crammed close to others in a cramped space?
In Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, the sanitation and hygiene facilities for the thousands of Rohingya refugees are already inadequate. Handwashing is an impossible luxury for the million Syrians trapped on the Turkish border and living out in the open with no formal camp structure to protect them.
As countries shut their borders because of Coronavirus, asylum seekers may be turned away forcing them to return to unsafe situations. The UN High Commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, has said that while countries are rightly adopting exceptional measures to combat the spread of the virus, including travel restrictions and cross border movements “wars and persecution have not stopped.” (Church Times online 24/3/20)
Christian Aid’s Senior Advocacy Adviser for Syria Iraq and Lebanon, Mairead Collins, has been quoted as saying “While this crisis is a global one, and all of us are impacted, we cannot take our eye off those who are in a much more vulnerable situation than us in this crisis.” (Church Times online 24/3/20)
Christians believe that prayer can change things. Please pray that the world does not forget vulnerable refugees and migrants. They need our help to protect and save them from the worst effects of Covid 19.
Lord, we pray for all refugees and displaced people struggling with the threat of Coronavirus. May those who are ill be comforted; those who are fearful, be calm and at peace. Uphold aid workers and humanitarian aid agencies as they seek to provide essential care to refugees in camps in difficult conditions.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
People might think of the Middle East climate as being hot but in Idlib right now temperatures drop to -7C at night and there has been heavy snowfall. So in the flimsy canvas tents in makeshift camps the refugees from the fighting in Idlib province are suffering from freezing cold, little food and the terror of not knowing where they can go to feel safe.
On February 16th The Sunday Times reported the tragic death of a seven month old baby boy, Abdul Wahab in Atmeh Camp near Idlib. The camp doctor told the distraught father that Abdul had frozen to death.
The UN Secretary General confirmed that young children are dying from the cold in this region. Since December 2019 almost 900,000 civilians have fled for their lives to escape the bombing and shelling by the Syrian regime and its allies. Many of these homeless families have had to move on to seek safety more than once during the 9 years of Syrian civil war.
Where can they go? The fighting is pushing civilians towards the Turkish border but Turkey cannot take in any more refugees. Relief efforts are hopelessly inadequate for the vast numbers of needy people. Without stoves or fuel, more children will die of the cold.
The UN Secretary-General is calling for an immediate ceasefire. This is a humanitarian tragedy on a huge scale.
These suffering people are our neighbours, they’re like us, families with children, older people, teenagers with aspirations and dreams, but who are all struggling just to survive in a desperate situation.
Jesus calls us to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12.31).
Make your voice heard and call for an end to their suffering. Write to your MP, to the Prime Minister calling for stronger advocacy from the British Government and support for the UN. Give to the All We Can Syria Refugee Appeal (www.allwecan.org.uk) to support their work with refugees .
Pray for an end to this bitter conflict that continues to cause such immense suffering to so many people.