But even for churches and charities who have no political agenda, the influx of migrants poses dilemmas. Without implying that they are indifferent to anybody’s suffering, European churches have, as one would expect, condemned with particular ire the destruction of ancient Christian communities and institutions in Iraq and Syria, as well as the travails of Christians convicted for blasphemy or apostasy in places like Pakistan or Sudan. For some churches in Europe, the connection with co-religionists abroad is human as well as moral; in Britain, for example, there is a small but vigorous community of exiled Iraqi Catholics who are in close touch with kin in the old country.
Does that mean, then, the churches and church-based charities should also care more about refugees who are Christian than about others on the move? There is a range of different answers. Some charities have the explicit aim of protecting Christians in the Middle East and other rough places, and at least informally, that concern continues when the people in question move elsewhere. But there are also religiously-inspired charities like Christian Aid whose mission statements make clear that their aim is to fight poverty with equal concern for people of all creeds.
Another dilemma for religious relief workers: should they, at the risk of being seen to exploit the vulnerable, treat the succour of migrants as an opportunity to urge them to become Christian? In the front-line Italian port of Catania, a spokesman for Caritas insisted to RNS news service that his team helped all comers and avoided proselytising. “On Sunday we hold mass. Whoever wants can come, but there is absolute freedom.” On the other hand, there is a Protestant pastor in Berlin who has baptised hundreds of immigrants from Afghanistan and Iran, according to a news report that has been widely circulated in recent days. While nobody can judge the sincerity of the converts’ motivation, conversion will make it easier for them to gain asylum: they can now claim that if they were sent back to their homelands, they would be executed for apostasy. So for any refugee whose personal religious feelings are not very strong, switching from Islam to Christianity could be a prudent move.