Faith leaders’ letter and protecting refugees

By Savi Hensman
September 12, 2016

Over two hundred faith leaders have called on the UK government “urgently to revise its policy” and “offer sanctuary to more refugees. We call on you to create safe, legal routes of travel, for example by adopting fair and humane family reunion policies”.

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is among the signatories. So are numerous serving bishops, the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, the Moderators of the United Reformed Church and Church of Scotland general assemblies and leaders of other faith groups.

Four principles are urged, which “have already been endorsed by over three hundred and fifty judges and lawyers; by the main humanitarian aid and refugee agencies; and by over a hundred and twenty-five economists backed by “a demonstration last September 2015 attended by 90,000 people.”

These are:

- The UK should take a fair and proportionate share of refugees, both those already within Europe and those still outside it.

- Safe and legal routes to the UK, as well as to the rest of Europe, need to be established.

- Safe and legal routes within Europe, including the UK, should be established.

- There should be access to fair and thorough procedures to determine eligibility for international protection wherever it is sought.

This is an excellent initiative. It is yet to be fully effective so it is perhaps necessary to face some uncomfortable truths.

The letter rightly mentions “the generosity, kindness, solidarity and decency that Britain has at many times shown those fleeing persecution, even at times of far greater deprivation and difficulty than the present day... We are proud that in May 2016, in a survey by Amnesty International, 83 per cent of Britons said they would welcome refugees into their neighbourhoods and households.”

Yet there is also a great deal of racism and xenophobia directed to those trying to escape war or persecution. It can be found among Christians and others. If this could be better tackled, public opinion would be transformed.

It is all the more surprising that this should be the case, since both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament emphasise compassion to foreigners, along with others who are marginalised.

In addition, numerous congregations have members who (or whose ancestors) have fled danger overseas, though this may be seldom discussed.

Religious teachings often work by engaging the imagination rather than by listing rules. Poetry and stories include retellings (sometimes embellished) of the deeds of famous figures and works of fiction, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. These may in turn influence music or art.

Perhaps more churches could encourage members or supporters to imagine what it might have been like for biblical characters forced to flee. These include Mary and Joseph escaping a murderous government and their son growing up as a foreigner (Matthew 2.13-15). This might tie in with modern accounts of fear, exile and bias.

Maybe space is also needed to address tendencies towards racism, xenophobia and scapegoating, showing empathy but without glossing over harmfulness. Of course, it is not only ethnic majority people who are affected – even those now on the receiving end may have enperienced times when they were part of a dominant group.

For instance, people might be asked to reflect on why ordinary Egyptians may have accepted their state’s brutal and eventually genocidal policies (Exodus 1.1-17); or why Jesus’ listeners from his own community tried to mob him (Luke 4.16-30). Again this might be linked with present-day experiences.

Raising such issues can be difficult since those who feel they are being accused of prejudice can become very defensive. However ,being prejudiced is common for humans – the issue is whether we are willing to listen and learn.

In addition, there may be genuine insecurities linked to social change or a sense that different sections of the population are competing for scarce resources. However, the answer is to try to empower and protect all rather than picking on the most vulnerable, which does not address underlying problems.

It is excellent that Christian and other faith leaders have been bold in speaking out for a more humane approach to those seeking refuge in the UK. However, politicians are under pressure from sections of the media and the electorate to act harshly. If this can be countered more effectively, it will make a huge difference.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.