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Asylum a basic human right, faith leaders declare

15 December 2023

PETER WILLIAMS/WCC

Archbishop Aykazian Vicken with refugees from different parts of the world holding olive trees for planting

Archbishop Aykazian Vicken with refugees from different parts of the world holding olive trees for planting

PEOPLE of faith cannot stay silent in the face of the undermining of the right to asylum, the vice-moderator of the central committee of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, told religious leaders on Tuesday.

He was speaking at an ecumenical event linked to the two-day meeting of the Global Refugee Forum, in Geneva, “Religious Leaders Unite for Climate Peace in Solidarity with Refugees” — the world’s largest international gathering on refugees.

They must speak out and act together for the well-being and protection of refugees and displaced people, whom God put centre stage and empowered, he said. “In this time of Advent and Christmas, we Christians remember the very beginning of the Jesus story, which actually starts with the experience of multiple displacement.”

The Bible, he suggested, was “not shy to mention the political as well as spiritual dimensions of the displacement experience. Welcoming a refugee is a holy moment.”

Refugees from different parts of the world presented olive trees for planting to the moderators of the ecumenical meeting, an event hosted by the UNHCR, the WCC, and Churches and Religions for Peace. Some told their stories at the meeting, including Nataliya Kolodiy, who had come to Geneva from Ukraine, with her children.

“My people have experienced much horror, grief, and pain,” she said. “Our land is covered with ashes and polluted with blood.” She thanked all those who had helped her family: “In difficult times for us, you did not stand aside. We have been made to feel at home.”

Seeking asylum was a basic human right, the faith leaders declared in a message to the Forum which underscored their commitment to offering sanctuary, besides defending refugees’ human rights.

They declared: “We challenge the representations of refugees in our media, reminding ourselves and our communities that seeking asylum is a basic human right, and that attitudes and policies can create real-life harm, marginalising and dehumanising people who are escaping war, disaster, and persecution.

“We commit to uniting around our common values, goals, and activities, and establishing effective and long-lasting partnerships to protect and support refugees, those displaced by climate change, and their host countries, magnifying the impact of everyone’s efforts.”

They also pledged to continue speaking up and defending the individual right to seek asylum. “We will advocate for safe passage, humanitarian corridors, and facilitation of humanitarian visas. We recognise the contribution of refugees. They bring their skills, ambitions, courage, and dreams for peace to their communities through forgiveness and reconciliation.”

There was “a path from despair to hope and from hope to action”, they concluded, and called on on religious leaders everywhere to join them.

Addressing a discussion on interfaith dialogue, climate change, and refugee displacement, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, described those crises as “no longer an external or remote possibility, far removed from my daily attention and responsibility.

“They are immediately and profoundly affecting our lives, our careers, and our lifestyles. We no longer have the false luxury of ignorance or indifference. We are now either directly contributing to the problem, or else decidedly committed to a solution.”

The threat could be overcome through collaboration, where the dialogue and partnership of religious communities had proved to be essential, the Patriarch told the meeting. “We are intimately and inseparably bound up with the history present and destiny of our world . . . we must acknowledge the world as larger than ourselves and our interests . . . we must adopt a spirit of honesty and humility,” he said.

“We must be prepared to look at options and solutions that affect us personally and not just other people. . . We should never forget that it is our very options and actions that led us to this mess in the first place.” He concluded: “Let us open our hearts to solidarity with refugees as well as to respect and protection of the unique gift of God’s creation that we are called to transmit to our children.”

The UNHCR’s assistant high commissioner for protection, Gillian Triggs, told participants in her closing remarks: “It’s an astonishing fact that a refugee is likely to spend in exile more than 20 years — more than two decades.

“Faith-based communities don’t go away when the project funds come to an end. Faith-based communities are the front line.”

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