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Address to the general assembly of the Federation of Protestant Churches in Italy in Rome on 16 November, World Council of Churches general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

“For a Europe of solidarity and rights” – Addressing together Xenophobia, Racism and Nationalist Populism Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit – WCC General Secretary

16 November 2018

“For a Europe of solidarity and rights” – Addressing together Xenophobia, Racism and Nationalist Populism

Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit – WCC General Secretary

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Matthew 25:35)

 

The WCC Executive Committee that met a few days ago quoted this verse of chapter 25 of the Gospel of Mathew at the beginning of a statement on People on the Move: Migrants and Refugees. This is not about numbers or statistics. This is about human beings, their life and survival. The Gospel does not leave any space for doubt: There have to be acts of solidarity and love where ever people find themselves in dire need of everything.

This may be because their livelihoods in the places of origin are being undermined by violence and war, natural catastrophes or the denial of human rights. This may be when they are especially vulnerable on their way searching for safe places for their families and a better life for their children or when they meet rejection and discrimination in the places they come to. They are individual persons: women, men, children with faces and names with a right to life! They deserve to be seen and to be received in solidarity and their human rights to be restored.

But there remains a terrible number that we shall not forget: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that almost 2000 people have died or have gone missing while trying to make the journey to reach the Mediterranean in the first ten months of 2018.

During the whole history of human kind, there have been people on the move. The Gospel is clear about it, indeed the entire Biblical narrative speaks of the care for the stranger and the needy in our midst. It tells the stories of Abraham and the following generations as stories of people on the way and even Jesus was a refugee in Egypt again according to the Gospel of Mathew. The care for the stranger and the poor belongs to the shared normative basis in the Christian tradition, that is also affirmed by other religions.

How can it happen that in several wealthier countries that were shaped by a strong Christian influence, refugees and migrants meet such fierce rejection and become the objects of political battles for power? Even though we see again and again that many people practice hospitality and show solidarity, public perception is marked by a rhetoric of fear and rejection of the other.  Across the Atlantic we are witnessing increased hostility against migrants. Even the deployment of military in addition to fences and walls is being considered and to some extent already practiced. But nobody needs to tell us that we find a similar rhetoric of fear and proposals to keep refugees and migrants at a distance also in European countries. We know this very well and it becomes increasingly a vital concern for the churches.

It is usually overlooked that Europe hosts not even the bigger share of refugees and migrants. The vast majority of them stays in countries in the Global South. But there are strong historic currents that prepared the ground for such strong reactions. When I visited the United States, representatives of churches pointed again and again to racism as an underlying issue and motivation for rejection and separation. Jim Wallis from the Sojourners called racism “the original sin” of the United States. But this “sin” has its origins in Europe where we have seen the worst persecution of people that are different because of the color of their skin, their faith or their ethnic belonging. These undercurrents together with the fear to lose out in times of economic crisis provide the fertile ground for the messages of nationalist populism that we have seen on the rise in many countries.

For this reason, the WCC and the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral human development have together organized a conference on Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration on 18-20 September 2018 in Rome that was closely followed by a Global Forum for Faith Action for Children on the Move on 16-19 October 2018, in which WCC partnered with World Vision International and several other leading faith-based organizations. Please let us confront together the destructive forces of fear, of xenophobia, racism, and populist, exclusive nationalism. These are just three layers in the same wall that divides us as human beings, expressing closed identities neglecting the right and the dignity of the other: “us” against “them,” “our security” against their vulnerability, “our wealth” against their right for life and livelihood.

We welcome very much the joint initiative of Sant’ Egidio, the Federation of the Evangelical Churches and the Waldensian Church for the humanitarian corridors for vulnerable refugees to Italy. We express our gratitude to you for this important example of solidarity and concrete help to so many people. Your example motivates other churches in Europe and the Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) of the Conference of European Churches (CEC). I would like to affirm and encourage all churches and believers, indeed all women and men of good will who have been welcoming the strangers, refugees and migrants and worked for their inclusion especially in societies where they tend to stigmatized and marginalized or excluded.

The statement of the WCC Executive Committee urges us to remind everyone that “all refugees and migrants, regular or irregular, are human beings each created in the image of God, children of God, sisters and brothers, with equal human dignity and rights regardless of their immigration status”. It also says: “To raise national boundaries and the nation state to an order of value above the recognition of the image of God in every refugee and migrant is a kind of idolatry.”

The statement calls also to reaffirm the institution of asylum, the principle of non-refoulement and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. I would like to remind us of the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants from 2016 and the two Global Compacts – one on Refugees, and one for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration – to be presented to the UN General Assembly in December 2018. And surely, I want to point to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect the most vulnerable among us. The Global Forum for Faith Action for Children on the move that came up with a plan for action we are called to implement together. Families are not to be separated and children on the move not to be detained.

We do have these good examples and well formulated guidelines for action. But still are confronted with fear and hopelessness that are being mobilized in the rejection and discrimination against refugees and migrants. Therefore, we have to have a clear priority in addressing fear. “Perfect love casts out fear” says the Bible (1 John 4:18). This is a strong and courageous statement; and it is true.  It points to another basic human experience and to the heart of the Gospel message. We read in the first letter of John “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). So let the church be the church. Let us stand for neighbour love and justice, for strong relationships of mutual support, for unity in the diversity of humankind. Let us be ambassadors of the love of Christ working for healing and reconciliation in solidarity with the poor and marginalized in this world torn apart not only by fear, but selfish greed and hatred. Let us nurture hope for a common future without fear of the other.

The love of Christ is far more than emotions. It fosters renewal of relationships between God and the world and among all of us broken by the consequences of sin that undermines life. Christian discipleship moved by love comes with responsibility for the other and accountability to family, to other people, to all creatures of God. Disciples stand in solidarity next to the poor and marginalized and struggle for their rights. Christ provoked his disciples to extend their realm of responsibility and accountability beyond any border – including even enemies.

The love of Christ includes the obligation to affirm the life and livelihoods of people and not to create the disasters of violence and war that force people to flee and to migrate. The love of Christ requires us not to succumb to racism but to resist exclusion based on fear, the fear that fuels xenophobia and exclusive nationalism.

Please let us together assume our responsibility and accountability to others as disciples of Christ, deepening our unity in Christ. I said during the conference in Rome: “The message of love, of unity in diversity, of healing and salvation, of hospitality and solidarity with all who are in need is more urgent today than ever:

We must help millions of migrants and refugees to secure their safety and to integrate them into new homes;

We must heal societies that are deeply divided by xenophobia, racism and hatred;

We must ensure that women and children are always and everywhere protected against abuse and are treated with dignity;

We must become authentic communities as churches, defending human rights and accountable in our faith, especially to the most vulnerable and marginalized;

We must address and overcome the destructive consequences of sinful economic structures and greed and care for our common home.

The existential context of migration reveals the deeper meaning of community and mutual belonging, encouraging us to stand up for the rights of the other and to share in our common humanity in all its diversity. The dangers we face make us more conscious of our shared humanity, and our solidarity as Christians frees us to serve the one world created by the one God. This is important especially in view of the advent of a new generation whose creativity, openness, and joy can offer fresh energy and ideas to make our earthly home more closely akin to the realm of God and God’s justice.

How will this happen? How it always happens: love will find a way.

Love will bind us as churches and as Christians to each other and to our neighbours across the street and around the world. Love will free us from distorted values and deep prejudice.  Love will see through the falsehoods of racism and tribalism. Love will open us up to learn from criticism and self-criticism of our own complicity. Love will fire our dreams of freedom and peace. Love will unleash new visions, creative thinking, and fresh approaches to our steepest challenges. And love will give us the courage and stamina, the heart and soul, to rescue progress from deep danger, and peace from peril.

Fellow pilgrims on God’s pilgrimage of justice and peace, you are—we are— building that ecumenical movement of love, grounded in the one Spirit of Christ, ever eager and alert to journey on together in faith and hope for a better world.

And so I urge you: Through our solidarity and struggle, through breaking barriers and boundaries, through our work and welcome, let this be a joint pilgrimage to a new hope, and a new future as one humanity created and loved by the one God.”