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Aid group says Syria crisis is 'opportunity' to spread Christianity

Comments come amid simmering row over aid workers distributing Bibles to refugees detained on Greek islands
A man walks past makeshift structures used as a church and a mosque by refugees at a camp in Idomeni in northern Greece (AFP)

The director of a Christian aid charity active in Syria has said the crisis represents an “opportunity” to spread the Christian faith, saying the war is “basically an inter-Islamic squabble”.

Steve Van Valkenburg is regional director of the US-based Christian Aid Mission, which works with Christian aid groups in over 100 countries, as well as funding “indigenous missionaries” in “mission field” locations.  

“Refugees…see the Muslim-on-Muslim fighting, and then they see how the Christians are reaching out with love and caring – that has to do something with their hearts,” Valkenburg told the Christian Post on Tuesday.

Christian Aid Mission currently supports 16 Syrian Christian organisations active within Syria.

“We’re not really sure what side we should be on,” Valkenburg continued.

“Basically it’s a family feud, and we’re trying to get in the middle of it. This is an inter-Islamic squabble,” he said.

"There are all kinds of people coming into Europe. There are some that are terrorist-minded, there are some who are becoming Christ followers, there are some that are just disillusioned," he went on.

"There is great opportunity for ministry among those people. They are basically going into Europe with nothing except scars and heartache and desperation, and it's a great opportunity to reach out."

Another, unnamed, director from the organisation, who spoke to the same reporter on the same day, told the Christian Post that his group was distributing as many Arabic-language Bibles as possible to the 8,000 Syrian refugees he works with in Turkey.

Christian volunteers complain of 'restrictions on religious freedom'

The comments come amid an ongoing row about alleged attempts by aid workers in Greece to convert refugees by distributing religious material, and claims by Christian volunteers of “restrictions on religious freedom”.

The head of Euro Relief, Stefanos Samiotakis, complained on Wednesday that UNHCR representatives had been “suppressing my personal freedom as a citizen of [Greece]…to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with refugees.

“This is Greece, and UNHCR is forbidding us from expressing our religious faith,” Samiotakis wrote after a worker from the UN refugee agency told him not to discuss religion with refugees.

Euro Relief became the largest aid organisation working at the Lesbos camp of Moria after other groups pulled out in protest over a deal between the EU and Turkey that would see asylum seekers detained on arrival at the island hotspot.

Euro Relief’s website does not mention any religious orientation, and a recent statement on its Facebook page says the NGO “doesn’t do Bible distribution”.

However, it says the right of Greek nationals to distribute Bibles is enshrined in the country’s constitution, and accuses the UK’s Guardian newspaper – which previously reported on the distribution of “conversion forms” – of attempting to “import [religious] persecution to Greece”.

Samiotakis’s allegation about the suppression of religious freedom has provoked fierce debate and criticism from fellow aid workers.

A second aid worker – and fellow Christian – accused Samiotakis and Euro Relief of “attempting to force [their] beliefs on others,” while others questioned whether aid agencies should discuss religion with potentially vulnerable refugees.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.