young people dance on the stage during one of the 2018 Mission Conference plenary, in Arusha, Tanzania

Co-sponsored by the World Council of Churches (WCC), United Nations agencies, ecumenical partners and faith-based organizations, the 8th annual symposium, entitled "Mobilizing Moral Influence and Governance to End the Systemic Injustices of Racism, the legacy of Colonialism and Slavery,” focused on the urgent need to transform our world.

Alice Wairimu Nderitu, special adviser of the UN secretary-general on the Prevention of Genocide, emphasized that the presence of racism and racial discrimination in specific contexts constitutes a key indicator of risk of atrocity crimes. “All over the world, ultranationalist resurgent is legitimizing hatred, racism, and violence,” said Nderitu. “While extremists spread inflammatory language in mainstream political discourse, under the disguise of populism, hate crimes and hate speech continue to rise.”

Nderitu added that religious actors and faith-based organizations play a paramount role in combating racism, xenophobia, and any form of intolerance. “In local communities, many faith-based organizations and religious inspired individuals put their lives at risk every day to advance the values of inclusivity and respect for diversity,” said Nderitu.

Dr Masiiwa Gunda, WCC programme executive for programmatic responses on overcoming racism, said that the greatest catalyst for positive change in our quest to eliminate racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia is intentionally conquering denialism.

“While racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia are pervasive in all societies, it is saddening that most societies remain in denial,” he said. “We are in denial at a personal level, but most worryingly, at an institutional level.”

Gunda highlighted some WCC member churches that have come out of denial to acknowledge the reality of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia in society. “These churches have gone a step further to acknowledge their own history of racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia,” he said. “They have and are acknowledging how they were beneficiaries of racism and racial discrimination in the past, how they even prayed for racializing systems, especially in the former colonies.”

Rudelmar Bueno de Faria, general secretary of the ACT Alliance, said that it is extremely important and urgent to address racism in international humanitarian and development work.  “We must recognize the issues across the system that undermine the ability of institutions and organizations to decolonialize themselves,” he said. “While discrimination and inequalities exist in different forms and across societies, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the systemic, structural and widespread nature of racial injustice, racial violence and racial inequality from which people of colour disproportionately suffer.”

The aid sector has long been criticised for being deeply imbued by its colonial past and structural racism, added Bueno de Faria. “This has enabled the ideology and practice of the powerful to be normalised in ways that systematically undervalued local knowledge and expertise,” he said. “If we really want to live into our values, make progress on sustainable development, and promote an inclusive humanity, we must grapple with the question of race and engage in active conversation on race and privilege.”

Symposium participants joined Bueno de Faria in expressing appreciation for the opportunity to talk about these difficult topics.

“The forms of domination or subordination that affect social, cultural, economical and political dimensions are the expressions of our colonial history and current post-colonial practices,” Bueno de Faria concluded. “The processes, attitudes and behaviors which amount to discrimination, prejudice, ignorance, and racist stereotyping continue to disadvantage minority ethnic people and exacerbate structural racism around the world.”

However, there are many ways to overcome the existing barriers to end racism, and the symposium fielded suggestions and best practices in this area.

“As multilateral and faith-based organizations we have to translate our actions into an operational environment that commits to being anti-racist,” said Bueno de Faria. “We need to boldly raise awareness by stating and sharing facts of racism.”

The 2022 edition of the Annual Symposium is promoted by the WCC’s Ecumenical Office to the United Nations in New York, ACT Alliance, United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, Islamic Relief USA, Seventh-Day Adventist Church, Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, United Religions Initiative, and Soka Gakkai International.

Learn more about the 2022 edition of the Symposium

Ecumenical Office to the United Nations