Over the past decade the Netherlands has been at the center
of intense and emotional debates about Islamic immigration and integration in
secular Europe. Long held to be one the most progressive and tolerant nations
in the world the Netherlands has quickly become home to some of the most vocal
anti-Islamic movements on the continent. As tensions between Dutch secularists
and Islamic immigrants rise, groups of Christians have taken some creative
steps to demonstrate Christ’s hospitality, justice, and grace. This is the
third, of three separate pieces in which Matthew Kaemingk examines particularly
inventive and inspiring efforts he discovered during his research in the
The Reverend Sybrandi is not, by any stretch of the
imagination, a typical example of inter-faith peace, justice, or tolerance. As a conservative evangelical pastor he firmly
insists that Islam is without a doubt, a false religion and that Allah is a
false desert spirit. When asked about Muslims in the Netherlands he will tell
you that he believes they have created a lot of trouble and that his country
would be better off without them.
These frank statements make Reverend Sybrandi’s actions in
the winter of 2004 all the more confounding to those who imagine that one
cannot hold firm (even exclusive) religious convictions while simultaneously be
an agent for inter-faith peace, justice and tolerance. Here is what he did.
On November 2, 2004 Theo van Gogh, the great grand-nephew of
the famous Vincent van Gogh was viciously shot and stabbed to death on the
streets of Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist. Theo had been a vocal, crude, and
merciless critic of the Muslim community in the Netherlands. His brutal murder
was deeply traumatic for the Netherlands. In the days and weeks that followed,
national shock and disbelief turned to anxiety, anger, and even acts of violence.
Over forty mosques and churches were either vandalized, defaced, or burned in
acts of retaliation. The national newspaper’s alarmist claim that “the
Netherlands is Burning” was an exaggeration, but perhaps not by much. Tensions
It was at this point that Reverend Sybrandi committed his
confounding act. He didn’t particularly like these people—believing them to be
terribly misguided—and he wanted them to leave. But he also knew that Jesus had commanded him to love his enemies,
to show them hospitality, and to make peace. He knew what he had to do.
Reverend Sybrandi walked to his local mosque, knocked on the
door, and to the shock of its inhabitants offered to vigilantly stand on-guard
every night until tensions subsided. In the days and weeks that followed he
called other churches and more volunteers joined him taking turns circling the
Reverend Sybrandi is not the sort who would be interested in
worshiping or praying with Muslims. When once invited to enter a Muslim prayer
room, for example, he politely declined and left. Neither is he the sort who
would be interested in engaging in much dialogue with Muslims. That said, in silently
walking around their mosques through those cold winter evenings Reverend
Sybrandi engaged in a powerful act of dialogue about the true nature of
Christian love, hospitality, and peace—an act his Muslim neighbors would not
But why would he do this? It certainly was not his personal
appreciation for Islam. Of course Sybrandi recites Christ’s command to love, be
hospitable, and be peacemakers. But while
many Christians know these commands
countless still fail to either remember or practice them when it counts. I could
not help but wonder if the words “memory” and “practice” were key to
understanding Reverend Sybrandi’s confounding and exceptional acts of
faithfulness. Let me explain.
In 1939 there were 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands; in
1945 there were only 35,000. The fact that many more Dutch Christians did not
protect their Jewish neighbors during World War II is a source of deep and
rarely acknowledged shame for the church in the Netherlands.
These past 40 years, Reverend Sybrandi’s unique ministry has
been organizing Dutch Christians to care for and maintain Jewish cemeteries
around the Netherlands. Not a day goes by when he is not presented with the painful
memory of Christians who failed to
stand up for the weak against the strong. Not a day goes by when he does not practice the command that Christians
should care, honor, and respect those outside their fold.
In 2004, when given the opportunity, Reverend Sybrandi would
not fail to remember or practice the hospitality of the One who
died, not for his friends, but his enemies.
Matthew Kaemingk is a doctoral student in Theology at the Free University in Amsterdam and Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.