Saving the lost: Faith at the crossroads of the global response to migrants fleeing war and terror
By Sasa Milosevic* and Prince Charles Dickson*
The villagers in Biu huddled at a local hall, awaiting the carriers of a modern plague that had scourged the landscape throughout northern Nigeria with mass murder, rape and kidnappings.
As members of Boko Haram approached, the only sounds that could be heard were murmured, soft-spoken invocations to Allah and Jesus for help.
“We had been told that the terror group was barely 10 kilometers away.” Muhammed Tijani recalled. “We did not know what to do, where to run to, just a few able men, and bows and arrows.”
And so they prayed – Muslims and Christians together.
Terror and fear know no religious boundaries in the refugee crises gripping large swaths of the world.
In Myanmar, tens of thousands of Royhinga Muslims have been forced into refugee camps by extremists who are Buddhists. No civilian is safe in the bloody civil war in Syria, where members of different Muslim and Christian sects all have found themselves forced to flee their homelands. And in Nigeria, where the number of internally displaced persons has reached 1.5 million by some estimates, Muslims and Christians also fill refugee camps across the border in Chad and Cameroon.
Many nations in Europe, complicit in some of the 20th century’s bloodiest crimes from the Holocaust to the “ethnic cleansing” of the Balkan wars to the Armenian genocide, face their own crises of conscience as new generations of refugees seek sanctuary within their borders, evoking nationalist backlashes with bitter memories.
Politics, economics, ethnic tensions all play a role in forced migration. So, too, does religion.
Belief systems are often invoked by terrorists to legitimize their cause, and by groups from hard-core secularists to right-wing nationalists to justify discrimination against religious minorities.
But take away the cries of extremists who turn upside down the shared values of global religions to welcome the refugee, and faith has one of the most critical roles to play in addressing the refugee crisis, analysts say.
It is faith that helps sustain the mental and physical health of refugees on their harrowing journey, and faith-based humanitarian groups that are a major source of aid and comfort, research shows.
Religious communities also have the ability to not only influence the moral culture of individual nations, but can be an effective voice in summoning a global sense of urgency.
The moral imperative is clear. Women and children are bearing the brunt of the suffering as the number of individuals displaced by war, conflict and persecution reached nearly 60 million in 2014, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). More than half of the refugees are children; one review of internally displaced persons in Nigeria found that more than one in four were under the age of five.
Yet from overwhelmed borders throughout Europe to the demands made on impoverished nations in volatile regions of Africa, there is plenty of soul searching still to be done.
Despite widespread evidence of a spirit that is willing to embrace refugees, the flesh in many cases is proving too weak, even among some who wear liturgical robes.
Search for common ground
Serbian blogger Ivana Karejlic was surrounded in the early morning hours by homeless refugees at a train station in Budapest. A little girl, Nur, came up to her and touched her hand. When she offered the girl a bag of Serbian cakes, the child ran to her mother to ask for permission. Nur’s grandmother, touched by Kareljic’s act, invited her to share the family’s pre-dawn Ramadan breakfast.
“I could cry faced with the fact that this this old woman kept much goodness in her heart even now when she is forced to live and sleep at the station,” she wrote, adding a message to her Serbian compatriots:
“Dear friends do not look away from migrants when you see them at the street and do not look away from your poor and helpless neighbor. Try to be human toward the brothers and sisters, if you can; if you cannot, then there is no need to behave as wolves toward them.”
Not everyone is listening.
In Serbia itself, a major stop for many refugees fleeing Syria, many government leaders and nationalist parties have been less than welcoming to the more than 90,000 immigrants that have already arrived this year.
Some of the nationalist media are leaders in anti-immigrant campaigns, raising fears that refugees are opening doors for ISIS terrorists. Mihalj Bimbo, the mayor of Banja Kanjiza, depicted migrants as desecrators of Serbian lands who are lacking in “general intelligence.”
Serbia is not alone in addressing tensions raised by the largest movement of refugees in Europe since the Second World War.
In Macedonia, which recently declared a state of emergency due to the crisis, police used stun grenades and batons in an unsuccessful effort to stop refugees from breaking through a barbed-wire border fence. In Germany, a nation that has taken a leading role in accepting refugees, there were more than 200 attacks on asylum shelters and refugee housing in the first six months of the year.
At their best, religious communities have been major sources of international aid and individual comfort to international refugees.
A comprehensive study of the international response of people of faith to refugees lifted up how religious beliefs motivate the faithful to action even when the state abrogates its responsibility, and powerful cultural forces promote fear and hostility.
The calling to welcome the stranger shared by nearly every global religion enables religious communities throughout Germany to be a part of the “Save Me” campaign providing local support for refugees and for a center city congregation in Brussels to house 200 people, mostly children, fleeing Afghanistan.
“In the study of the practical ways in which faith organizations provide support to the displaced, it is valuable to understand the religious basis on which this work is founded, and the fact that most of this work relies on individuals of faith and conviction to act as leaders, motivators and innovators,” researcher Christine Goodall declared.
But there are also concerns.
A study of Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim religious leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina found that not only do many spiritual leaders still refuse to acknowledge war crimes committed by members of their faith during the Balkan wars, but they appear to be actively undermining efforts at peace and reconciliation.
For example, the report noted, the Serbian Orthodox Church in Srebrenica, not far from a genocide memorial remembering the more than 8,000 Muslims slaughtered by Serbian paramilitary units in 1995, holds its own service each year commemorating the “liberation” of the town.
Researcher Janine Natalya Clark also found examples of clergy promoting interreligious dialogue and face-to-face contact, but these largely were local initiatives with little support from the larger institutions.
The lesson: Religion is a potentially valuable, yet fundamentally under-utilized peace-building tool in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Clark wrote.
Borno State in northeast Nigeria, often referred to as “the home of peace,” is majority Muslim, but historically welcoming to other faiths. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri has its seat in the state, as does the Church of Christ In Nigeria, the Evangelical Church of West Africa and a handful of Pentecostal Churches.
Olalekan Soji’s mother, grandfather and great-grandfather were born here. It has always been his spiritual home.
When he was 9, “My dad would drive us to the Baptist Church in Maidugiri, with his old car, I honestly cannot remember the name. I only know my mom had this habit of sitting in the back, my elder sister would sit in the front. Many often mistook my elder sister as our dad’s wife, the boys sat at the back with mom,” he recalled.
“We drove to church and on special occasions I remember very well that some of our Muslim neighbors followed us to church, like when my baby brother was born.”
And then came Boko Haram, a terror group like ISIS claiming to act in the name of Islam, but which is universally condemned by the vast majority of global Muslims. And peace was broken for his family and his neighbors.
Just recently, his lifelong Muslim friend Musa was killed in a car bombing at the market.
“The week Musa died was the third none of us could go to church, because you would wake on Sunday morning and hear that your church has been targeted. And there were several cases; you would hear a blast from the doorstep of your house,” Soji said. “You don’t need to be told to stay at home.”
Similar fears could be heard in visits throughout northern Nigeria. No fewer than five churches in Kwajaffa, Tashan Alade and nearby communities were razed just a week before a reporter’s visit.
Several mosques also were empty in Biu and Konduga and in the village of Kandahar no mosques remain after three attacks while the faithful were observing Friday prayers.
Visitors were hustled inside one major mosque where a year ago more than 40 worshippers were shot dead.
“We could be mistaken for either Boko Haram, or if a bomb was thrown, we would be easy targets,” said a man in his 40s surrounded by only a few people attending Friday Jumat prayers. “For the second year running we could not go out to do highly rewarding Sallah prayers and it is becoming a permanent feature. How can these people claim to be Muslims or propagating Islam.”
The loss of religious resources can be particularly painful for displaced peoples.
Scientific studies attest to the importance of religion for many believers as a coping mechanism in times of crisis. For refugees, the disruption of their faith lives can be a tipping point in their mental and physical health.
They are a hurting people. For many, each step of the journey stretches the human capacity to adapt to the breaking point. The horror for victims and their families of the kidnappings and systematic rapes of young girls by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS are almost beyond comprehension.
One “Study of the Mental Health of Asylum Seekers in Serbia” showed that nearly nine in 10 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, two-thirds from anxiety and more than three-quarters from depression.
The belief that a loving God is by their side through their difficulties, and the comforts of religious rituals and social support networks of other believers, is for many a major source of hope and optimism that gives them the strength to endure.
One international study associating religious participation with emotional well-being said that immigrant religion can be defined as a “balm for the immigrant’s soul.”
And yet even in many refugee camps it is not safe for individuals to practice their faith as officials in host countries worry about the infiltration of terror groups, and extremists in the camps intimidate members of their own and other faiths into submission.
In the Minawao camp, near the deserts of Cameroon, baptism can be a perilous act.
“It is not that easy, I am a Christian,” Peters Sani said. “I have not been to church in one year, we try to organize, but here there is a problem of mutual suspicion. So women that give birth cannot even say this is the faith of the child.”
What will make a difference
There are signs of hope everywhere, as Goodall noted in her study of religious responses to refugees.
Rados Djurovic, executive director of the Asylum Protection Center in Serbia, noted local people in the southern towns of Sjenica and Tutin organized collections for humanitarian aid and provided dinners to asylum seekers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Many Serbians offering aid remember the flood of Serbian refugees who fled persecution during the wars of the 1990s.
But analysts say such efforts are just a small step in meeting the growing needs of refugees. So far, many nations have resisted being part of a coordinated international response, both in a willingness to assist beleaguered nations from Chad to Greece by taking in a share of refugees and in supplying adequate funding to care for the mostly women and children fleeing for their lives.
International donors so far have given less than 3 percent of the funds needed to care for refugees in Chad this year barely 8 percent of the budget needed by Cameroon, U.N. officials said recently.
And while Pope Francis recently issued a call for “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in refugee families, some officials in countries such as Poland and Slovakia have said they want to give priority to Christian families.
So what can be done? And how can faith play a role in alleviating suffering?
Here are some ideas suggested by analysts and researchers:
Protect religious freedom: The fears that civil unrest will cross borders with massive influxes of refugees is real. However, the temptation to respond by imposing restrictions on minority religions only leads to greater conflict and violence, extensive research finds.
The best response is generous aid to meet not only the humanitarian needs of refugees, but to also address the root causes of conflict in their homelands, found one study of “Refugees and the spread of civil war.”
Promote Understanding: Cultural and media depictions associating entire ethnic and religious groups with violence and extremism can have devastating consequences for refugees, mostly women and children seeking a safe refuge. In a global study of religiously motivated violence, Pennsylvania State University researchers found that social restrictions on religion, even more than government restrictions, held the most direct and powerful relationship with conflict and violence.
Djurovic’s advice to journalists is simple: Tell your audience who the refugees are, and why they are coming.
Develop personal contacts: Even if you do not start out loving them, getting to know your neighbor goes a long way to limiting prejudice, research has found .
Mara Hinic, the owner of a beauty salon in Belgrade, said she could hold back tears when a Syrian refugee who owned a salon in his homeland showed him pictures of the carnage he fled.
“It’s impossible to avoid the sadness in their eyes the bad things they survived,” she said of the refugees who come to her shop. “I can’t help but remember the Balkan refugees that visited the salon in the 1990s. Memories of those heavy times help me to better understand these poor people wherever they come from.”
Treat faith seriously: Respect for religious beliefs needs to be a part of a comprehensive strategy for assisting refugees, from the actions of governments and aid organizations to doctors and mental health counselors seeking to strengthen coping mechanisms that promote optimism and physical care and reduce trauma and depression.
The global refugee crisis represents a potential transformational moment in world history.
Nations from Africa to Asia to Europe to North America with troubled pasts of ethnic conflict and of putting political and economic self-interest above humanitarian needs have an opportunity to write new chapters in their national stories.
Religion is playing and will play a critical role. But the degree to which faith is given the opportunity to influence consciences in atmospheres of religious freedom and tolerance, and whether its practitioners choose to transcend sectarian interests in pursuit of the global common good, is also still to be determined.
*Milosevic is a freelance writer based in Serbia.
*Dickson is a freelance writer based in Nigeria.
ARDA National Profiles: View religious, demographic, and socio-economic information for all nations with populations of more than 2 million. Special tabs for each country also allow users to measure religious freedom in the selected nation and read the key parts of its Constitution referencing religion.
UNHCR: The U.N. Refugee Agency site offers news, research, maps and statistics on displaced peoples throughout the world.
Amnesty International: The human rights group offers news and information on refugees.
Eurostat: Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union, provides data on migrant integration-social inclusion and migration and asylum, as well as population statistics. It also provides data on population projections and the enforcement of immigration legislation.
Clark, Janine Natalya. Religion and Reconciliation in Bosnia & Herzegovina: Are Religious Actors Doing Enough? The study, featuring interviews with Muslim, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic representatives in the region, examines the role of religion in promoting reconciliation.
Connor, Phillip. Balm for The Soul: Immigrant Religion and Emotional Well-Being. The study finds immigrant religious activity is positively associated with emotional well-being across multiple national contexts.
Goodall, Christine. Shouting towards the Sky: The role of religious individuals, communities, organisations and institutions in support for refugees and asylum seekers. This paper takes a comprehensive look at the role of religion in refugee assistance, and “argues that religious faith is becoming ever more important in the current environment of increasingly harsh immigration regimes across the world.”
Salehyan, Idean, and Gleditsch, Kristian Skrede. Refugees and the Spread of Civil War. The article explores concerns refugees fleeing civil conflict may contribute to unrest across borders, and offers recommendations on how nations receiving refugees and the international community can respond.
Grim, Brian, and Finke, Roger. “The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century.” The book provides a compelling argument that religious freedom serves to reduce conflict, while restricting religious freedom is a path to religious persecution and violence.
Image by ARC – The Alliance of Religions and Conservation [CC BY 2.0]
Image by Bulent Kilic/Getty