Together to strengthen the response to refugees
Interfaith conference sheds light on how Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups strive to ‘welcome the stranger’
(LWI) – Leaders of Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups responding to refugee crises in different parts of the world gathered in Geneva on June 20 to share best practices in an increasingly challenging global context. Representatives of more than 50 faith-based organizations are participating in a two-day conference titled “Welcoming the Stranger, Shaping the Future”. The event is a joint initiative of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) in partnership with Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) and HIASthe Jewish humanitarian group working with refugees and asylum seekers.
In her opening remarks, LWF General Secretary Reverend Anne Burghardt insisted that a coordinated response by believers to the current global refugee crisis is more urgent than ever. Against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, with rising fuel prices, soaring inflation and fears over food supplies, she said that “many Western countries are turning inward and as faith-based organisations, we cannot remain silent”.
HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield with LWF General Secretary Reverend Anne Burghardt
Echoing his words, HIAS President and CEO Mark Hetfield noted that the Jewish community represents only a “tiny percentage” of the world’s population. “We have to act together,” he said, because “we know we can’t do anything on our own.” Acknowledging that “religions can be part of the problem” during conflicts and crises, he insisted that “we need to have tough conversations to make sure faith and religions are part of the solution.”
Waseem Ahmad, CEO of IRW, stressed the importance of strengthening and providing more resources to grassroots communities who work daily to give dignity to refugees. “We come here today to humbly listen and learn from local groups,” he said, adding that Islam places strong emphasis on the requirement of believers to “welcome refugees into our homes.” .
Gillian Triggs, Deputy High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR, responding to leaders of HIAS, LWF and IRW
Joining the religious leaders in the opening session was Gillian Triggs, the Assistant High Commissioner for Protection of UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, “we have learned that we need to work more closely with local communities,” including faith-based organizations. These groups, she said, “have been able to gain access to refugee camps or places of conflict” and often “stay there after funding [of international agencies] is exhausted.
The religious leaders of the three religious communities spoke about the theological imperatives contained in the sacred texts of each tradition. Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden noted that “the theme of caring abroad runs like a red thread” through the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures. She also reflected on how Jesus himself was challenged by “a stranger”, the Canaanite woman in the Gospel of Matthew who “persuades him to rethink his mission”. The Archbishop, who launched a European interfaith network called “A World of Neighbours”, said:
“Never underestimate the gifts of courage, resilience and wit that a stranger can bring to you.”
From left to right, Rev. Dr. Sivin Kit, director of the LWF program for public theology and interreligious relations, Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich, Prof. Abdul Mu’ti, general secretary of the Central Council of Muhammadiyah and the Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden
Professor Abdul Mu’ti, secretary general of the Central Council of Muhammadiyah, an educational non-governmental organization in Indonesia, insisted that Muslims are bound by their faith to be people of peace and to protect all who need, especially the most vulnerable. Failure to do so, he said, is considered a sign of disobedience to God.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich spoke of the recent experience of his country’s Jewish community in supporting millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian attacks on their cities. At the start of the war, the community in Warsaw set up a crisis management team and he reflected on how Polish Jews had gone from welcoming them as refugees to those who “learn to give to the others in need”. .”
Dr Abeya Wakwoya, Director of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus Development and Social Services Commission, with Reverend Emmanuel Gabriel, Director of Symbols of Hope in Nigeria
Representatives of many local organizations shared examples of their work with refugees and host communities, as well as returnees who have survived traumatic experiences of human trafficking, rape and torture. Rev. Emmanuel Gabriel of the Lutheran Church of Christ in Nigeria and Dr. Abeya Wakwoya, Director of the Development and Social Services Commission of Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, spoke about the Symbols of Hope project which provides pastoral care and psychosocial support to returnees, as well as providing them with vocational training and livelihood support.
Nageeba Hassan Tegulwa, Muslim co-chair of Interfaith Women in Uganda, described her work developing educational tools for young refugees and members of host communities to prevent them from competing for scarce resources. The training project focuses on healing and overcoming stigma, teaching young people from both communities to see themselves “as complementary pieces of a puzzle”.
Rabbi Nava Hefez, education director of ‘Miklat Israel’ (Shelter Israel)
Rabbi Nava Hefez of Jerusalem, education director of a project called ‘Miklat Israel’ (Shelter Israel) spoke about the organization’s work which began supporting mainly Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers who were at risk of evicted by the Israeli government in 2017. Some 2,000 Israeli families came forward to offer protection and a safe hiding place for those facing eviction, while protesters from the organization took to the streets of Tel- Aviv to protest the demonization of African migrants.
Heidy Quah, a young human rights activist in Malaysia, founded a group called Refuge for the Refugees to develop services and networks that enable migrants to defend their rights. She spoke about the organization’s work during the pandemic as the government targeted detained migrant workers who were denied vaccines and accused of being “COVID carriers”, she said. During this difficult time, she added, the organization has mapped the responses offered by churches, mosques and gurudwaras so that migrants can find the nearest source of help and support.
Dr Mongi Slim, regional president of the Tunisian Red Crescent
Syrian psychiatrist, Dr Mohamed Abo Hilal, himself a refugee living in southern Turkey, shared stories about his work with an organization called Syria Bright Future which provides services to other war survivors, especially orphans and women victims of gender-based violence. The role of faith, he noted, is often an important part of the resettlement process for these refugees, but nongovernmental organizations like his “are unable to mention the religious component.” The 2018 Handbook on Faith-Sensitive Approaches in Humanitarian Action, published by the LWF and IRW, in partnership with HIAS and other faith-based and secular organizations, has been helpful in changing this narrative, he said. declared.
Dr Mongi Slim, regional president of the Tunisian Red Crescent, described his organization’s work in the south of the country, near the Libyan border. “We receive a lot of bodies from people who died at sea,” he said, describing how a DNA sample is taken from each of the victims in an effort to identify them and notify their families. “Each refugee is buried with a number,” he explained, “but each has a name and a family, with parents wanting to know where their children are.”
Participants called for stronger support for their work, through intensified interfaith advocacy and outreach, stronger funding for local organizations, and increased education on refugee protection in different religious traditions. Faith leaders, they insisted, can play a vital role in changing narratives about welcoming and integrating refugees, as well as empowering secular organizations to engage more effectively with believers.