Spain's Christians Brace for Syrian Refugees
October 22, 2015
When Catholic rulers retook Cordoba and its famous mosque in 1236 (a cathedral was later inserted into the mosque in the 16th century), they preserved its celebrated architecture. (Wikipedia)
As a first step in addressing Europe's refugee crisis, European Union (EU) leaders on Sept. 22 assigned 15,000 mainly Syrian refugees to Spain, with still greater batches to follow in subsequent years. Some in Spain fear the wave of Syrian refugees will bring more Muslim influence to a country where radical Islam has made inroads, but one Spanish ministry is eagerly welcoming them.
The refugees are Spain's share of an initial distribution of 120,000 refugees across Europe. Having established churches in the southern province of Andalusia and in Morocco, which lies nearly nine miles from Spain's southernmost point across the Strait of Gibraltar, the ministry director sees the EU plan as an unprecedented opportunity. In Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on Morocco's northern tip, he already has substantial experience with Syrian refugees; he's been proclaiming Christ to them for three years.
"Our experience is that they come to the Lord fast," said the director, identified only as Antonio for security reasons. "They say, 'We are here because Islam [jihadists such as the Islamic State] put us here and broke our family and broke our country,' and they open very fast. There are house churches among Syrians."
With 6,000 refugees arriving at European countries every day, more than 500,000 have flooded the continent's borders this year, according to United Nations figures. While that figure may pale compared with the more than 4 million refugees that have fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the refugees have created political crises in Europe as infrastructures fray and cultures clash.
Only Germany and France have been assigned more refugees than Spain, which for decades has seen Muslim immigrants from Morocco grow into a kind of religious target group for competing radical Islamists from abroad – kindling Catholic-Muslim tensions in the autonomous region of Andalusia, named from the Arabic "Al-Andalus" caliphate of Muslim conquerors that ruled from 711 to 1492.
Analysts point to the revelation by Spain's National Intelligence Center (CNI) in 2011 that Islamic-ruled countries from the Middle East and North Africa have channeled millions of dollars to radical Islamists in efforts to compete for Spain's nearly 1.9 million Muslims, of which 800,000 are Moroccans. Saudi Arabia heads a list that includes Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, according to the CNI. Saudi Arabia funded a $30 million Islamic Cultural Center in Malaga, as well as mosques in Marbella and Fuengirola, for the purposes of promoting its repressive Wahhabi brand of Islam, according to the CNI.
Furthermore, imams in more than 100 mosques in Spain preach Islamic extremist doctrine, according to the Spanish daily ABC. Salafism, an Islamic extremist movement based on restoring the original traditions of Islam, has increased its presence in Spain, according to the newspaper.
As the Syrians and other refugees arrive, Spain's Islamic centers also will be keen to welcome them, the ministry director said. Islamic extremists such as the Salafists aim to re-conquer Spain for Islam, Antonio said.
"It's evident in every place – in every place they go, they build a big mosque with a big minaret to say, 'We are here,'" he said. "Saudi Arabians are sending imams and money. They're buying many things. They're sending missionaries. They pay for a place, and they take control of the Muslims of the area."
While extremist sects such as Salafism and Wahhabism tend to be separatist and discourage integration into Western society, Antonio said that, overall, Muslims quietly adapt when they are a small minority. As they become a majority through population growth, migration and conversion, they seek to exercise more influence through government and influential networks, he said.
With deep love for Muslims in relationships he has developed in Morocco and in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta along Morocco's northern-most border, Antonio can hardly be labeled an Islamophobe, even if some might read that into his description of Islamist wishes that he's detected.
"They want Spain," he said, citing Islamist wishes to retake Cordoba, with its Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, an architectural wonder that is more than 11 centuries old, and Granada, with its mighty Alhambra, a former Islamic palace and fortress complex. "They say, 'This is my country, and we want it back.'"
Antonio said those who make first contact with the arriving Syrians will have the most impact.
"We're encouraging the church to be the first to contact them and have an impact with them with the gospel," he said. "I am beginning to work with 100 Syrian families just in Jerez, but I'm working with other believers to do the same. They say, 'I don't know how to work with Syrians.' I said, 'It doesn't matter – you receive them, and I'm ready to work all year to train you so you can work with the Syrians.'"
About 30 volunteer workers help Antonio in the outreach in Jerez, and the same number of volunteers work in each of the other Spanish cities where his ministry has planted some of its nearly 70 house churches, including Seville, Malaga, Jaen and Cordoba. In the three churches that he pastors, four or five people at each church receive Christ each week, he said.
His experience with Muslims includes proclaiming Christ and training leaders in Morocco, which has resulted in 100 small fellowships. Whereas in Morocco he takes care not to speak against Islam, in Spain he refrains from speaking against the dominant Roman Catholic Church, where surveys have repeatedly shown few practice their religion, and even those who do are rarely familiar with the Bible or Christ's salvation.
Holy Week in Jerez includes processions with idols that evangelicals eschew, but they focus on proclaiming Christ rather than deriding Catholicism. (Wikipedia, El Pantera)
"In the past, the missionaries didn't do a good job in southern Spain; they began to fight against Catholicism," Antonio said. "In the Bible, I don't see Paul fighting against other religions. I only share the gospel. I share about Jesus, His love, how it changed my life, how he impacted my family and relatives. When you talk about this, they change."
His ministry team establishes relationships with people by identifying their needs, which in southern Spain's weak economy often means distributing food, visiting people in hospitals and helping with other medical needs. Through EU networks, the ministry has ample access to food supplies, so Antonio said his main need is financial assistance for transportation, Bibles and tracts.
"Gas is four times higher in Spain than what it is in the United States," he said. "My main need is this, because it's expensive to spread the gospel. People call me from Jaen, and I cannot go, because how am I going to pay for everything? It's not possible."
His ministry also hopes to renovate a building to start a Christian school for U.S. families at nearby Rota military base, which ultimately would render his ministry completely self-sustaining. Until then, he primarily seeks funds to purchase the Word of God in Arabic, Spanish and English, and the wheels to get its message to otherwise unreached people – before radical Islam reaches them.