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Global migration and new ecclesial realities

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia, WCC general secretary, in Cardiff, 25 April 2007.

25 April 2007

Address by Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
WCC general secretary
Cardiff, 25 April 2007

Migration is one of the main features of the changing global context, with decisive consequences for the church and the ecumenical movement locally and globally. More people throughout the world are being forced to leave their homes because of wars, human rights violations, dire poverty or environmental destruction. In the coming years, ecological migrants will increase in number because of the effects of climate change. But more than any other cause, wars lead to the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, as happened to the Lebanese as a consequence of Israel's military actions. While several hundred thousand Lebanese were able to leave their country for Syria, Cyprus and other countries, over half a million Lebanese were displaced from their homes but remained within the country. These internally displaced people are often more vulnerable to violence and face more difficulties in accessing humanitarian assistance than those who were able to make it across an international border. While television screens were filled with pictures of some foreigners being evacuated from Lebanon, there were many other foreigners in Lebanon whose governments were unable to support their evacuation. Tens of thousands of Asian domestic workers, for example, were forced to remain in the country.

The war in Iraq has forced some two million Iraqis to flee to neighboring countries while another two million are displaced within their own country. This is the largest displacement in the Middle East since the 1948 Palestinian refugee crisis. Presently one in eight Iraqis is displaced. Most of the refugees are in Syria and Jordan, but they face restrictions on employment and access to social services. Many Iraqi refugee children, for example, are not in schools. Other governments in the region have closed their borders to Iraqis fleeing the violence of their homeland. Within Iraq, the internally displaced people are particularly vulnerable and both Iraqi and international NGOs find it increasingly difficult to provide humanitarian assistance because of the security situation. The Iraqi Red Crescent is the only organization working throughout the country and around Christmas, a number of their staff were kidnapped by extremist organizations. Some of the Iraqi governorates have refused to allow Iraqis from other parts of the country to enter their communities. The displacement of Iraqis is changing the demographic "geography" of the country as people are leaving mixed neighborhoods for ones where there is a majority of a particular sect. The consequences of Iraqi displacement will be felt for many years, perhaps even decades.

From rural to urban areas, from poor to emerging economies in the South, from countries of the South to countries of the North - migration has become a trend impacting most societies worldwide. The number of international migrants has increased to more than 175 million in 2005, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Today, one in fifty people on earth are living outside their home countries, while an estimated 25 million have been forcibly displaced within their own countries. At the same time that globalization is leading to freer movement of capital, goods and services, walls are going up to limit the movement of people across borders. As the "human side" of globalization, the phenomenon of migration means that virtually all societies are multicultural and multi-religious.

In June 2006, the United Nations issued a report on international migration and development that explored how migration is helping countries expand their economies, meet shortages of workers and lift themselves from poverty. According to the report, migration is no longer a one-way ticket to geographic and cultural isolation. Today, immigrants are able to contribute not only to their new countries, as they have always done, but can more easily help their countries of origin as well. The vast flows of remittances - which last year exceeded $230 billion and now dwarf international aid - are only the most tangible expression of this. In addition, immigrants are using their skills and savings to help their home countries grow, even when they remain abroad. At the same time, the UN report acknowledges that migration has many negative consequences - political, economic and social - and calls on governments to strengthen instruments to protect the rights of migrants.

Migration is a global issue, affecting societies around the world and continues to grow as a consequence of the increased intergration of world economies over the past decade. However, Migration from Pacific countries is changing the nature of island societies and local economies. South Africa deported more than 50,000 irregular Zimbabwean immigrants in the first six months of 2006 as floods of people fled economic collapse in their country. Much of the domestic policy debate in the United States this year focused on immigration reform. Migrants from North Africa set out in small boats for European shores in record numbers, provoking political crises for countries such as Malta and Spain. The increasing emigration of Christians from the Middle East has long been a concern to churches in the region. Periodic crackdowns in Thailand lead to the deportation of tens of thousands of Burmese migrants who have come to Thailand because they cannot survive at home.

In 2005, the WCC central committee meeting before the Porto Alegre assembly addressed these realities through a public issue statement on "Practising hospitality in an era of new forms of migration". This document summarizes well the impact of globalization and the post-11 September 2001 concerns for security in regard to the movement of people. The document points to both negative and positive consequences for sending and receiving countries. While remittances have far and away surpassed development aid, Africa already has lost one-third of its educated and skilled labour. "Brain drain" has severe consequences for countries like Ghana that lost to migration 60% of its graduating doctors in the 1980s. Today we can ask: how many of the skilled professionals who fled Lebanon in July and August 2006 will return to help re-build their country? And we can only speculate on the long-term consequences for Iraq of the departure of much of the country's educated middle class. Receiving countries benefit from the skills and contributions of immigrants. Nevertheless, some politicians blame immigrants for unemployment, crime and other problems of their economies, thus fuelling racism and xenophobia in their societies, often with severe consequences for migrants who are subject to harassment and even murder.

Addressing the emerging trends of migration, our WCC statement draws attention to the trafficking of women and children. It says, "600,000 to 800,000 human beings are trafficked every year with annual profits of US$ 8-10 billion." In many cases the marginalization and exploitation especially of trafficked women and children, but also of adult men, amount to new forms of slavery. Because of their "illegal" status, they are left without any protection and support.

The document highlights the devastating impact of military interventions and war, but also emphasizes that governmental concerns with security and migration have led to unacceptable forms of detention, imprisonment and forced deportation of refugees and asylum seekers in a number of countries. I myself have witnessed the inhuman situation in a detention camp in Australia which, at least at that time, provided a parallel with prison conditions in Guantanamo Bay. The statement concludes with very clear and practical recommendations to the churches on how to offer hospitality to those who arrive in their countries, to combat stigma and discrimination in their societies and to challenge government policies.

New ecclesial realities

The 2005 WCC central committee statement provides a solid basis to engage with the consequences of migration in our societies. It is a real public issue statement. Migration, however, also has a very deep impact on the churches themselves with important challenges to their ecumenical relationships both locally and globally. And it is for this reason that I have decided to make it the central theme of my report.

Intra-national or international migration flows have an impact on the churches from which migrants leave as well as on the churches in their host countries. This is most obviously manifest in the increasing number of new diaspora churches in all countries and regions of the world. The recent multiplication of Orthodox churches all over the world is worth mentioning particularly, as is the remarkable presence in Northern countries of many churches of African origin. Diaspora experience modifies both the "host" and the "guest" churches, and their customary theological or ecclesiological approaches. This is particularly visible in large cities, where migrant churches provide a haven and home for the most vulnerable, offering material support, cultural space, an affirmation of identity and the opportunity for religious expression. In many countries, the growth of such churches is significantly changing the religious and ecumenical scene.

Geneva is a good example. For centuries, Geneva has attracted substantial numbers of foreigners - refugees, business people, employees of international organizations. But in recent decades the figures have drastically increased. According to government statistics the number of people in Geneva of African origin and from Eastern Europe has doubled between 1989 and 2002. Those from Asia and Latin America have increased about 50%. More than 50% of residents in the city of Geneva now come from abroad.

The official figures, however, cover only those people who have been officially registered. They do not take into account the many persons without legal status - immigrants looking for a job, asylum seekers and others. This great diversity of people is also mirrored in church life. There are more than sixty Protestant communities of different origin in Geneva. While for many language, culture or ethnic background is the common denominator, others bring together people from different countries. A number of them are bilingual and provide simultaneous French-English interpretation. Some worship in the churches and community centres of the Protestant Church of Geneva, but the majority of them have found their own spaces - sometimes just a garage or a room in a basement. At the same time, other churches of Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition have come into existence as have new religious communities of Muslim, Jewish and other faiths. It is interesting to note that most members of conservative evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Geneva are foreigners.

While migrant churches are being established throughout the world, there are many cases where churches in host countries have opened their doors to migrants and have been transformed in the process. Almost all clergy ordained in the Methodist Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, are Pacific Islanders. The more conservative social theologies of Pacific Christians are changing the policies and practices of churches in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. The Waldensian Church in Italy now has many more African members than Italian ones as a result of a deliberate decision by the church to welcome immigrants and to be transformed in the process. St. Andrew's Church in Cairo has similarly been profoundly changed by the active participation of Sudanese Christians in its church life. For many US mainline churches, growth in church membership is happening primarily through increasing Hispanic and Asian participation.

There are varying degrees of integration of migrants into the life of host churches. In some cases, churches arrange parallel services for migrants so that they may worship in their own languages. Thus, some congregations in the US will have several worship services on Sunday: in English, Spanish, Korean and Kiswahili, for example. In some cases, migrants establish mission churches, reaching out to English-speaking communities.

Of course, migration is bound to change local ecumenism and its organizational expressions. The same is true for the national level. It has been quite some time since the Nigerian-founded Church of the Lord (Aladura) joined the British Council of Churches, today's Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. But there are now developments where, in Switzerland for instance, churches of people of African origin have formed their own umbrella organization (Conference of the African Churches in Switzerland) that is now looking for membership in the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. The Conference of European Churches has received similar requests from Korean churches and churches of African immigrants. They all say: "We are no longer foreigners. We live together with you in Europe, in this country, in this city. We see ourselves as integral to the one Church, and we wish to become a more visible expression of the Church of Christ in this place." The changing ecclesial realities in Europe demands for churches to remain "united in diversity" or "being church together." The European Union plans to have a year of "intercultural dialogue" in 2008, it will offer an ideal opportunity for the churches to highlight the uniting in diversity aspects for churches, just like the anniversary of the official end of the slave trade is another opportunity for the churches in the United Kingdom.

There are encouraging examples from various cities and countries of how the process of integration and ecumenical relationships between different churches may be fostered. I am sure that many of you representing churches from around the globe are in a position to share positive examples showing where the Holy Spirit wants to lead us with these new developments. But we also know that in the process of mutual encounter and growing together, old wounds of history, racism and cultural differences must be addressed. Historically, colonialism accompanied European migration into all regions of the world. People were driven from their lands, their livelihoods were undermined, and many were killed. Colonial conquest and the slave trade deeply changed the ethnic composition of this world in a violent and radical way, and this has left its mark even on the churches. To this day, the consequences of slavery and racism impact on relationships between churches; for instance, in the USA this history necessarily has been addressed in the process of uniting churches. The impact of migration today confronts churches with racism and xenophobia in new but similarly violent forms.

Churches which seek to open themselves to people of different ethnic origins and cultural backgrounds often find the process to be more difficult than anticipated. Migrants bring with them different theological traditions, different liturgies and different music that can enrich churches - but also may divide them. Philip Jenkins argues, in "The Next Christendom", that Christian migrants from the South tend to be more socially conservative and more evangelical than the mainline churches in the North. They often gravitate towards evangelical and Pentecostal churches in the North, thus strengthening the more conservative evangelical churches and, at least indirectly, weakening certain ecumenical initiatives.

Churches, like the societies of which they are a part, are grappling with the questions of assimilation versus integration. It is easier for a church to welcome migrants as long as they adapt to the traditions and policies established by the host church. This is assimilation. Integration, on the other hand, implies a willingness to accept the contributions of migrants to change the church and to create something new. This is more difficult for many to accept. It has been argued that one of the reasons migrants establish their own churches is because they don't feel that the established churches are ready to change to accommodate their needs.

The church of the stranger

Throughout the Bible and in the early church, people were called by God to love and offer hospitality to strangers and exiles (Lev. 19: 33-34; Rom. 15:7). The Bible contains many stories of people on the move, from Abram/Abraham and Sarah/Sarai to the Holy Family. Christ's call to welcome the stranger (Matt. 25:31-45) is central to the gospel message. Welcoming the stranger is not optional for Christians. Nor is it conditional. Christ didn't call for Christians to welcome those strangers whose papers are in order or who speak our language. Given the realities of migration today, welcoming strangers is not just about "being nice" to those who arrive on one's doorstep. In today's world, welcoming strangers is a justice issue, and often a political statement.

The church therefore should strengthen its capacity to practice hospitality in an era of new forms of migration. The church must be a strong advocate and defender of the right of people to move freely within their own nation and leave their home and live elsewhere in search of their God given right to life with diginity. We welcome the stranger with solidarity from the stand point of Christ and a common desire to seek justice and accept Gods word. ""I now realise that it is true that God treats everyone on the same basis. Those who fear him and do what is right are acceptable to him, no matter what race they belong to." (Acts 10:34-35) " I can not therefore overempasise the important fact that as a church we have a responsibility to ensure that public opinion is properly informed on the realities and true situations in the country of origin for the migrants. The threat to life, the poverty level, the enviromental damages, the lack of social servies and medicines, the tragedies that affect them and the risks involved in returnig to their countries of origin. This step is crucial in order to guard against the rise of new forms of xenophobic action and racism take root in our communities, churches and countries. Secondly making migrants, who are our brothers and sisters, by faith becoming scapegoats for social, political and economic difficulties within the local situations.

It would be wrong to deny that welcoming strangers often goes hand in hand with a deep challenge to one's own tradition and identity as a Christian and as a church. Unfortunately, it is not automatic that the experience of difference translates into the embrace of diversity and the sharing of different gifts. It requires a conscious choice to build relationships of trust and to be ready to change in the common encounter. Very often, difference is further deepened by lines drawn between differing communities that might even justify racist exclusion and oppression. The community that is called to share the bread and the wine with each other, and to follow Jesus in his ministry of healing and reconciliation, must not aggravate divisions; rather, it should become a bridge-builder. It ought to provide space for those who are different from one another to experience that they all belong to one humanity meant by God to share life on this planet.

We as christians and as church must speak migration with an added perspective of gospel values. We recognise the need for governments to ensure the security of it people and nation. However, as christians we should also look at every human being as an individual deserving to be treated with diginity and respect. As a church our response to migration should not only be determined by the prevailing laws but that it should challenge us to desire to overcome every form of injustice, discrimination and contempt shown to other people as every one of us is in the image of God. We should emphasise the fact that our response to migration is rooted in scripture and the social doctrine of the church. "When an alien resides with you in your land do not molest him. You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you, have the same love for him as for yourself, for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord , am your God." (Lev 19:33-34) The World Council of Churches being an ecumenical body and seeking the unity of churches and human kind wishes to use the biblcical foundation of welcoming the stranger to challege churches to do their par. Offering hospitality and a way to receibe those who come to our community with respect and diginity and strengthening the human relationships. The Churches'Commission for Migrants in Europe, of which CTBI, is a member, is a cooperating partner on migration, refugees an work against racism, and this cooperation includes work with the Middle East Council of Churches through the Amman Proces.

Over the centuries, Christian communities were ready to help people on the move. This was vital in times of persecution (1 Peter 4:9). Widows and deaconesses practised hospitality (1 Timothy 5:10) and served strangers even in other countries. St. Verena, a nurse from Egypt, went to Switzerland in the 3rd century. There were St. Anysia in Thessaloniki (3rd century), Olympias in Constantinople (4th century), St. Melany from Rome (5th century), Juliette the Merciful in Russia (16th century). At the edge of the city of Caesarea in Cappadocia, St. Basil began to construct a group of buildings destined to receive travellers and sick persons. In many other places similar houses were established in a ministry known as xenodochia.

Many churches remember that their ancestors had to leave their villages, cities and countries for the sake of their faith; they were expelled, or fled from war and genocide. In many parts of the world, there are churches that have existed and continue to exist as churches of refugees and migrants. There are also others who remember how their church received and welcomed these refugees into their midst. The 19th-century abolitionist movement in the US and Canada gave refuge to slaves on their way into freedom. Churches in Europe joined in helping people to escape from Nazi dictatorship and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Today, churches in South America are working together to move to safety Colombians whose lives are in danger.

The challenge to our fellowship

Churches, from the very beginning of their existence, have built diaconal services for refugees and migrants. But they have always understood that the real challenge goes deeper and is indeed about sharing in solidarity the common life in Christ. Unavoidably, the situation of migrants puts the question to each of us: Who is my neighbour? Diaconia in this existential context reveals the deeper meaning of the koinonia, the fellowship in Christ.

The fifteenth-century Orthodox icon of the Holy Trinity by Andrei Rubliev identifies the divine communion between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with the communion of the three strangers who were received and fed by Abraham in the spirit of genuine hospitality (Genesis 18; Hebrews 13:2). As was expressed in the July 2004 Faith and Order Commission meeting, "through the practice of true hospitality, which transcends somehow the distinction between ‘host' and ‘guest', a mutual transformation takes place."

Let me conclude my reflections by posing a number of questions: Does such true hospitality in the shared household of God provide us with an interim goal at the present stage of ecumenism? Can there be among us genuine hospitality, which helps to overcome the wounds of the past, to discover each other in new ways and to build the relationships and the community that will help us, finally, to discover and live out our oneness in Christ? Are we willing to take the necessary risks? Practising true hospitality involves recognizing our own vulnerability and being open to transformation. "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured" (Heb 13:1-3). The process of welcoming strangers also leads us to look at our own societies in new ways and to see the racism and xenophobia that may not otherwise apparent to us. Standing with migrants is politically unpopular in most regions of the world. The risks are very real, yet so is our calling.

Migration is a complex phenomenon which affects our societies, our churches and our ecumenical movement. This issue merits further reflection and discussion by churches locally and globally. In the WCC programme plans we are calling for public hearings in different regions this year and a major global consultation on "Migration and the changing ecclesial landscape" in 2008. Our initiative will be greatly enriched by input from different parts of the world, and I welcome the participation of the churches in Wales.