A statement issued by the World Council of Churches (WCC) Executive Committee on 25 November has made strong recommendations urging all countries to take special measures to protect and support refugees and displaced people from the Middle East, especially those from countries like Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine.
It recommended increased financial and material support for all countries hosting displaced people, urging countries to share the burden more equitably with the most affected host countries and communities. The statement particularly appreciates efforts by countries like Lebanon and Jordan to keep their borders open.
Based on the Christian premise of welcoming the stranger, the statement addresses the crisis of forced displacement in the Middle East, where the WCC has a number of churches and partner organizations working on the issue.
The document urges all parties to conflicts driving destruction and displacement in Syria, Iraq and Israel-Palestine, to “respect the dignity and rights of all human beings, to observe all the principles of international humanitarian law concerning the protection of civilians”. It calls for an end to the conflicts, enabling return of the refugees and displaced people to their homes safely and with dignity.
The statement also calls on the international humanitarian community and authorities in host countries to redouble efforts to avoid statelessness among refugee populations, particularly among children, by simplifying registration procedures and documentation requirements for substantiating identity and marriage.
The statement recommends all states sign, ratify and implement the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1954 and 1961 Statelessness Conventions.
Another significant point stressed by the WCC statement is related to strengthening the Christian presence in the Middle East, with due protection of their rights and dignity.
According to Dr Elias El-Halabi of the Middle East Council of Churches, “the statement is timely given that the WCC constituency includes important members in Syria, Iraq and Palestine”.
“The issue of internally displaced persons is related to human rights and international humanitarian laws, yet deeply linked with the presence of Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “Forced displacement of religious and ethnic communities can tear apart the social fabric of their homelands, in a region which prides itself on diversity and a history of peaceful co-existence.
“Work to care for refugees and displaced people is never enough. While churches and ecumenical organizations in the region are trying to address the situation, the need to do more to support refugees still remains persistent,” Halabi said.
Challenging divisions, supporting displaced people
The statement also speaks about the 1974 partition of Cyprus, asking political leaders from both Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities to overcome hostilities, division and injustice and to bring negotiations on the future of Cyprus to a successful and just conclusion. It specially encourages religious leaders, through the religious track of the Cyprus Peace Process, to continue their efforts for peace, justice and human rights.
While encouraging international collaboration to protect refugees and displaced people, the document invites churches to deepen their reflection on the Christian calling to welcome the stranger, promoting the resource “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders”. The document is an outcome of dialogue convened by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, following which faith-based organizations including the WCC drafted “Welcoming the Stranger” that aimed to inspire religious leaders to welcome strangers with dignity, respect and support.
WCC Central Committee moderator Dr Agnes Abuom said, “This issue is impacting the life of the church, as well as our national borders, in terms of security.” She added that, “Since its formation, the WCC has worked with refugees and with the resettlement of people, which is part of our diakonia call.”
“This is why the churches are very concerned about the security of such people, especially children and women, who are more vulnerable than others. So we would like to see governments and faith communities address this issue more effectively,” she said.
The WCC Executive Committee meeting is held in Paralimni, Cyprus, from 20 – 26 November. The meeting is hosted by the Church of Cyprus.