The author has been involved in ministry to refugees in Europe for a number of years.
Athens is a ‘gateway city’ into Europe. The Greek capital sees a constant flow of refugees from Muslim backgrounds, among them Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Sudanese and Syrians. Most of these refugees have fled war-torn homelands, trekked across high mountains and through barren deserts, and have finally made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea. In 2017 alone, more than 3,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean, many of them off the coast of Greece, making this sea border currently one of the deadliest places on earth. Once in Athens, they often find closed doors, opposition and threats of violence.
Having risked everything by leaving their homeland, in the hope of finding a new life and freedom in Europe, on arrival in Greece, these refugees are met with the stark reality that there is little, if any, opportunity to realise their dream. In fact, it is the opposite: they often find harsh, unwelcoming and even brutal treatment. Many arrive penniless and with little more than the clothes they are wearing. On their arrival in Greece, they seek asylum. With no real opportunities for life and freedom in Athens, and difficulties in obtaining assistance from government sources, many refugees give up and attempt to leave for Germany or other European countries. In March 2016, however, the ‘Balkan’ route was closed. Refugees lacked the money to pay smugglers to help them cross borders towards Central Europe and remained stuck in Athens, becoming desperate and losing hope.
More than 80% of all the refugees fleeing war and oppression in the Middle East come through Greece. Athens is the epicentre of what is known as the ‘Refugee Highway’.
Meeting the Humanitarian & Spiritual Needs of Refugees
God has used these circumstances to expose many refugee people to the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time. The majority of the refugees have never had the opportunity to hear of the saving love of Jesus, because they come from countries that are ‘closed’ to classical missionary work. As most refugees are in transit, they have time to be exposed to the gospel and to explore biblical truths through meeting Christian workers.
There are a handful of ministries in Athens that seek to fulfil the mission of Jesus Christ, through meeting the basic human needs of refugees. They provide clothing, healthcare, laundry services, meals, showers and biblical teaching, presenting the gospel of Jesus in both word and deed. The ongoing evangelistic efforts have borne fruit, with a number of people from different religious backgrounds coming to Christ. People from Afghanistan and Iran have shown the greatest response to the gospel. After the closing of the ‘Balkan’ route in the spring 2016, some of these ministries started to disciple those who had come to faith in Christ. Additionally, they are training new believers in how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with others they meet while they remain in Athens, or on the Refugee Highway, if they manage to move on to Central Europe.
The ministry in Athens that we are partnering with, has provided basic biblical teaching and discipleship training for a number of Muslim-background believers. In autumn 2017, twelve Afghan and Iranian believers had the opportunity to attend a three-month Bible training course. This was a tremendous chance to be rooted in God’s Word, to enable growth as disciples of Jesus Christ and to become disciple makers themselves.
Our German Partner’s Increasing Engagement in Athens
In 2011, I took a small team of young Christians from Germany to Athens to find out about the living conditions of refugees and to serve alongside the ministries that were operating at that time. Since then we have organised more than ten outreaches to Athens for groups of young Christians from Germany. In 2016, with generous financial support through Echoes of Service, we were able to increase our engagement in Athens substantially. In summer 2016, we had 45 short-termers serving in Athens between May and November, some for a fortnight, others for up to seven months. They supported the local ministry in its humanitarian programmes, evangelism and basic Bible teaching. A number of Bible school students took the opportunity to gain cross-cultural experience through serving refugees in their summer internships. Last summer we had 27 short-termers serving in Athens. Short-term ministry has led to a long-term commitment for a number of them. So far, we have one young couple and a single man who are serving long-term in Athens in two different ministries. One of them, S, was part of our first outreach team in 2011. D, who graduated from Bible college in October 2017, has just completed her pre-field orientation and will be sent to Athens for long-term service in spring 2018. An internship at a church in Athens over Easter 2017 gave her the final push to confirm her call to the work with refugees in Greece. In her ministry, she will focus on mothers with children and trauma counselling.
More Labourers for the Harvest are Needed
There are between 50,000 and 70,000 refugees living in the greater Athens area. The constant flow of new refugees coming, and the continual organisational effort to meet their basic and spiritual needs, creates a range of ministry opportunities for Christians from mainland Europe and the UK.
Ministries in Athens, which are in need of volunteers and long-term workers, are as follows:
- assisting during mealtimes: such as cooking, serving and cleaning
- taking care of children during mealtimes or Bible studies
- teaching English, German or Greek
- escorting refugees to clinics, hospitals and police stations regarding their papers
- helping through trauma care and prayer
- focusing on deeper biblical training and intentional discipleship with new believers.
Athens – God’s Starting Point for a Movement Among Iranians & Afghans
R, a devout and radical Muslim from Pakistan, came to know the Lord in Athens eight years ago. He had been raised in a Qur’anic school in Pakistan from the age of seven and had become an imam by the age of 17. As a young man, he moved to Athens to start mosques and to win people for his radical brand of Islam. In the Greek capital, he had a supernatural encounter with God and was saved. Back home in Pakistan, his family wanted to kill him when they found out about his faith in Christ. Following repeated attacks on his life, he managed to flee to Germany. He started to evangelise in his refugee camp and again was brutally beaten by other Pakistanis. He was in intensive care for a few weeks, as they had stabbed him in the stomach and broken his skull. None of these drawbacks could stop his zeal to share the gospel with other refugees, and to train young believers from Afghanistan and Iran to become disciples of Jesus, and to share the gospel among their kinsmen. Over the last two years God has used him to establish 22 small churches among Afghan and Iranian refugees. He regularly trains and coaches the leaders of these small church plants. Some of these groups of believers meet in coffee shops; others in side rooms of restaurants, in the open air or in private flats with believers sitting on a carpet.
We thank God for reaping a harvest among refugees from a Muslim background entering Europe via Athens. We thank Him for those who have served along the Refugee Highway for many years, and have become a blessing to those who have lost home and family. Pray for more labourers for this unique harvest field. Pray that God will raise up men and women from mainland Europe, and the UK, to join hands with those serving the humanitarian and spiritual needs of refugees in Athens, for both long-term and short-term service.