We face two major issues in world mission today – one; the steady and significant decline of Christianity in Europe and two; the rise of Islam in Africa. These following descriptions are what I have witnessed in Italy during my four weeks spent in the country (18th March-15th April), working with churches ministering to African refugees and migrants.
For four weeks I worked in three different parts of Italy, with many missionaries and with many churches. I learned from them about the mission field in Italy, but the main focus of my time there was the migrants and what the Church is already doing and planning to do. I went into the regions of Napoli, Avellino and Campobasso and have visited a dozen of migrant camps.
I have discovered that the migrant situation in Italy is more critical than I thought. While I was in Napoli I was astonished at how many migrants there were – begging on the streets and selling merchandise. However moving to smaller villages and towns, I realized that it was not only in the big cities that the migrants were, but that they were disbursed equally and in large numbers, in every region of Italy. When the migrants arrive from Sicily the government distribute them preferably in the countryside so they won’t be in view of everyone. The large number of migrants coming in are housed in “camps” all over the country, those camps are usually old hotels, unused offices, abandoned restaurants and various other buildings – Any Individuals and companies can run these camps. They are not run by the government but funded by it, these fundings come from the EU, therefore the individuals and companies running those camps receive a certain amount of money per person. They must use it for housing, food and giving 75 euros a month to each migrant, but for many this has become a business and the camps are often very badly looked-after and the migrants do not actually receive their monthly allowances, hence the beggars on the streets. One manager of several camps told us that drugs used to be the most profitable business in Italy, but it is now migrants. They are lucrative commodities in a nation deep-rooted in corruption and crime.
I have also had the privilege of meeting the migrants themselves – they have names and stories just like all of us, some have families worried at home and some have no family left. Nevertheless they do not all come fleeing wars, some come for economic reasons, but all have endured inhuman treatment on the way to Italy. I assumed that it had took them a short, maybe a few months to reach Italy from their countries in Norther Africa, but I came to know that their journey from Africa to Europe was terribly long, it took them in average a year or two, often more. First they had to escape their country, then to travel through the desert, endure prison or forced labour in Libya and then finally cross the Mediterranean on a dinghy boat, not knowing if they would survive. Both Muslim and Christian migrants have told us that Libya is the worse place on earth at this moment in time. As soon as black Africans enter the country they are either imprisoned and detained until they can provide for their crossing or put into forced labour. In the prison they are inhumanly treated: they are not given food every day and drink dirty water, they do not have facilities and disease spread quickly and fatally. They are beaten and shot by the jailers, many have died and many die there. In these prisons in Libya the faith of the Christians have grown for they truly relied in the Lord to rescue them. The Christians with the Muslims have prayed together in those prisons, they have sought God’s deliverance together and have endured trials by faith together. Many Muslims have already been evangelized by the African Christians on their way to Europe.
I have found Islam to be a unique opportunity for the gospel! There are many common points between Christianity and Islam, many bridges can be crossed to explain Jesus’ gospel. For example the Muslim’s idea of salvation is a work-based salvation that gives us a platform to explain the wonderful gospel of Grace. I remember thanking God in my prayers in Italy for these bridges and the opportunities it gave us to share the gospel with Muslim migrants that had many questions. It is hard to give a number but I would say that half of the migrants I have met are Christians, and the other half are Muslims.
When they arrive in Italy, and are put in camps in various places, they have to wait first for their commission – an appointment where they are to explain why they left – and then they wait for the result to know if they can stay in Europe or not. This process takes more than a year. They suffer simply by being purposeless, apart from society, packed in camps and reliving in their heads of all that they went through. They are called Moussa, Divine, Felix, Andrew, Gabriel, Esther, Rebecca, Samson, Victor… I have befriended some of them and have had the privilege of hearing their stories.
Economically and politically, this wave of immigration is a great complication and has created chaos and fear into our society. But to look at it purely spiritually, this is an opportunity the Church is neither worthy nor capable to handle. Indeed, the church in Europe is small, declining and aging. Europe, though cradle of the Reformation, has become the most urgent and needy mission field in the world today. We could blame the rise of secularism or the deceitfulness of wealth, but the fact is that Europe has become an ungodly continent, uninterested in the gospel. Italy is considered an unreached people group (an unreached people group refers to any ethnic or ethnolinguistic nation without enough Christians to evangelize the rest of the nation), most of the population is Catholic by tradition but uninterested in the gospel. The country is known as the “missionary graveyard” because of how discouraging it can be to work there. The Evangelical church is very small, Jehovah Witness being the second largest religion after Catholicism. Italy is also very weak economically and unemployment is very high, and so it is in Greece, the other arrival country for refugees coming from the Eastern route. The Protestant Church in Greece represents less than one percent of the population and there is still great need for both evangelism and discipleship in the country. Yet this is in Europe and through Italy and Greece that the Lord is bringing people who are yet to hear the gospel as well as many of our brothers and sisters to fill our churches. What appears to be an adversity is an opportunity, not only to reach the migrants, but also the Italians, and the Europeans. Nothing is too hard for God (Jeremiah 32:27), He will glorify Himself in our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9). He delights in using a few and feeble people to bring Him glory as He demonstrated with Gideon when He reduced the size of his army so that the numerous men would not think they have won the battle themselves (Judges 7:2). What is impossible for men, is possible for Him (Matthew 19:26). But the question is not whether or not God is able and wants to save His people -both in Europe and Africa – nor is the question whether or not He wants to use us, the question is do we want to be part of it?
We face many major issues in world Mission today: one the steady and significant decline of Christianity in Europe and second the rise of Islam in Africa but praise be to God for He is bringing to Europe brothers and sisters that will fill our churches and be our fellow Kingdom-builders and Muslims that are eager to know more about this Jesus they have heard about in their religion and in the prayers of their African friends on their perilous journeys to Europe. May His redeemed people answer His call to love the strangers among us and make disciples of all nations.
Leviticus 19:33-34 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Matthew 28: 18-20 “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”