Refugees at the border in the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom on their way to Austria and western Europe. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

Refugees at the border in the Hungarian town of Hegyeshalom on their way to Austria and western Europe. Photo: Paul Jeffrey

At a global conference on xenophobia in Rome, a panel of four religious leaders from, respectively, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Islamic traditions, spoke candidly about how xenophobia can sometimes be woven deeply into the fabric of these traditions.

The World Conference on Xenophobia, Racism, and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration is running 18-20 September.

The world conference is organized by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU)


Buddhist: Rev. Katsutoshi Mizumo, Rissho Kosei-kai, Europe

Kosei-kai spoke of the two foundations of Buddhism: compassion and wisdom. In Japan, he explained, the word “compassion” is expressed by two Chinese characters. “One means to give help and comfort to others, and the other means to sense our connection with others, and ease their suffering.”

Similarly, wisdom, expressed in its Chinese characters, means “to find different element between all living beings, to see things as they are,” he said.

As a fundamental tenet of Buddhism is compassion, people who lack compassion cannot go forward, continued Kosei-kai, and xenophobia is blocking the way forward for many in Japan. “For the last few years, we have been facing the problem of hate speech to non-Japanese residents,” he said. “This is contrary to compassion, the foundation of Buddhism. The base of hate and discrimination is fear.”

In Buddhism, the concept of peace is often expressed with tranquility of the mind, or as “inner peace, regardless of external,” Kosei-kai continued. “But rather than insisting on the tranquility of the mind, in Buddhism the search for individual inner pace is insufficient for the achievement of absolute peace.” One should not count solely on the spiritual world but must promote peace in the real world as well, he concluded.


Christian: Ziad El Sayegh, Middle East Council of Churches

The protracted crises of migration, asylum seeking and forced displacement in the Middle East and the Arab world - from occupied Palestine, through a wounded Iraq, to ​​the bleeding Syria - are being used by political leaders and social actors to mainstream xenophobia, racism and nationalistic extremism, said El Sayegh.

“We must consider whether humanitarian and relief responses to support migrants, refugees and displaced persons on the one hand, and the local development programs to support host communities on the other, are sufficient to avoid or stop the rise of xenophobia, racism, populism and national fanaticism,” said El Sayegh. “In other words, is it the lack of resources that strains us and thus results into a conflict of identities where religion is a founding pillar?”

El Sayegh continued to pose thoughtful questions: “Or is it the deficiency in managing pluralism and protecting diversity within the principle of equality in the eyes of the law?” he asked. “Are these contributing factors to the escalation that we’ve mentioned?”

The world needs not only a humanitarian response to the crisis but also a response that addresses the root causes of fragmentation. “It is devastating if we fail and the repercussions will endure for generations to come,” he concluded.


Hindu: Prof. Anantanand Rambachan, St Olaf College

Rambachan spoke of racism and xenophobia as challenges that transcend national and religious boundaries. “It is very important that we speak to these issues from our religious traditions,” he said, “that we speak theologically, that we speak also self-critically.”

Rambachan believes religious leaders must speak about racism and xenophobia with humility, acknowledging the ways in which their own traditions have been and are still complicit in racist structures. “I’m very much aware of the appropriation of the Hindu tradition in India: the rise of Hindu nationalism that marginalize other traditions,” he said, adding that there is a need for counter-narratives based on a solid theological foundation.

“Converging in developing this counter-narrative can be really powerful if it has dimensions of an interfaith narrative, if we can come together from very depth of our traditions and lift our voices together,” he said. “The divine is that from which all beings originate, the source of everyone, of everything, of all life.”

In other words, the divine is not limited by national boundaries, concluded Rambachan. “We should never assume our community is favored by God in any way,” he said. “Not only is God the source of all life but this one God is present equally in all beings.”


Islam: Dr Aref Nayed, founder and director, Kalam Research & Media

Nayed began his remarks by reflecting that the whole division of migrants and non-migrants in the world is quite delusional. “I believe we are all migrants,” he said. “We are migrating as communities. The churches are migrating. Everybody is migrating toward peace and compassion, and ultimately harmony.”

We are all transient here on earth, continued Nayed. “Eventually, everybody checks out,” he said. “How did we conduct ourselves during our stay? We are all migrants. What did you do with your fellow migrants?” The concept of how we treat fellow migrants is in everyone’s scriptures, no matter their faith tradition, Nayed reflected.

After touching on the lessons of migration learned in the very early days of Islam, he defined Islam as a very migratory religion. “We are asking God to lead us to the right path, to lead us on the way,” he said. “The notion of being a stranger is actually celebrated. We are all strangers. Muslims who abuse migrants are abusing Islam.”

Nayed also underscored the importance of changing unjust laws that abuse migrants. “I just want to say, as people of God, from whatever denomination you are, from whatever religion you are, you have a responsibility to talk to your governments to make sure policies change.”

Catholic official: we must walk and pray together with vulnerable people (WCC news release 19 September 2018)

At global conference on xenophobia, refugees speak out on role of the church (WCC news release 18 September 2018)

Photos from the Conference on Xenophobia, Racism, and Populist Nationalism in the Context of Global Migration