Religious Teaching and Action on Refugees

By: Katherine Marshall

June 20, 2017

An extraordinarily demanding agenda will face the leaders of the G20, the world’s richest and most powerful nations, when they meet in Hamburg, Germany in early July. The global response to the crisis of forced migration belongs right at the top of their agenda. And the G20 leaders should take some lessons from the example of world religious communities, both in their common concern for refugees and in their practical commitment to action that will move us beyond the current grievously inadequate global response to the crisis.

Since 2000, June 20 has been marked as World Refugee Day. The idea is to focus attention around the world on the plight of people forced to leave their home and country. It is also to honor the courage and persistence of these women, men, and children as they hope for a time when they can find peace in their homeland or a new home.

In this year, 2017, the day has special significance. Horrific images and stories of suffering people sit side by side statistics that show higher numbers of people forced to move (65.2 million) than at any time since the end of World War II. At the same time many communities and nations find themselves torn apart by debates about how to respond: to welcome and support suffering people, or to put up walls to keep them elsewhere.

The refugee journey is deeply engrained in the teachings and narratives of relgiious traditions, an echo of the searing passages that our ancestors undertook. The call to welcome the stranger and to support those fleeing conflict and oppression is a fundamental ethical pillar of many faiths. Pope Francis is among the religious leaders who have borne witness to this call through words and deeds.

So have many religious communities. In keeping with ancient traditions, congregations and individuals have welcomed refugees. Spontaneous openess and generosity is part of the story: blankets, food and toys, comfort and sympathy, and a sympathetic ear.

But religious communities in all their complexity have done far more. Many of them support organizations like Caritas, World Vision, and Islamic Relief that are backbones of the global humanitarian system. Religious leaders are among the most passionate and persistent advocates for international and national support and action, an example seen when millions joined a global day of prayer in May. Some leading ideas for needed reform come from religious institutions. An example is the Humanitarian Corridors scheme advanced by the lay Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio, aimed at arresting the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean in dangerous boats.

Religious communities bring diverse experience and ethical priorities to the complex humanitarian crisis that we face but there is a heartening thread linking countless communities. It turns statistics into people, families, lives, and dreams.

Last week at the G20 Interfaith Summit in Potsdam, Germany, religious leaders and scholars echoed again and again the demanding ethical call to welcome the stranger. But they also explored the diverse experience of communities grappling with tensions sparked by resettlement and positive responses as lessons for others.

They asked the question: what might and should the G20 do? The exchanges highlighted distinctive experience that the G20 would be foolish to ignore. They also underscored that the call to action on forced migration links the powerful moral anchors of universal principles of human rights and the noblest, deepest teachings that are shared among religious traditions.

The Hamburg G20 meeting offers the chance for fresh thinking and approaches.

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