Geneva: the centrality of faith
24 May 2013

Displaced people seeking refuge in a church in northern Sri Lanka. (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
For the vast majority of uprooted people, there are few things as powerful as their faith in helping them cope with fear, loss, separation, and destitution. Faith is also central to hope and resilience.

Geneva, 20 May 2013 - Recognising that faith plays a pivotal role in the experience of refugees is key to offering protection. 

There was no denying this reality during a high-level dialogue on faith and protection organised by UNHCR in Geneva in December 2012, which explored the centrality of faith for refugees, the strengths and challenges of faith-based organisations (FBOs) as well as their relationship with other humanitarian actors. However the UN agency admitted the need and announced steps to become more "faith-literate" to reach a deeper understanding of all these elements. 

"Faith contributes much more than many people think to the protection and well-being of refugees," the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, told participants of the dialogue on 12 and 13 December. 

"For the vast majority of uprooted people, there are few things as powerful as their faith in helping them cope with fear, loss, separation, and destitution. Faith is also central to hope and resilience." Ignoring faith "would be to ignore its potential for preserving dignity and for finding solutions for the people we care for".

JRS Geneva representative Michael Gallagher SJ helped to organise the meeting, which was attended by Peter Balleis SJ, JRS International director, and Mitzi Schroeder from JRS USA. 

Guterres urged the faith leaders, UNHCR officials, NGO and state representatives present "to reflect on some of the values and principles in the world's different religions that underpin the notion of protection, and which unite us and our partners in our action." He sketched the common ground that unites different faiths in protecting those who need refuge, saying our rule of law is rooted in their ancient laws. 

The indisputable strengths of FBOs were quickly established, given that they lend support from the moment of displacement right through to the implementation of durable solutions. 

In most circumstances, local religious communities are the first refugees turn to. Often enjoying more trust, better access and local knowledge, they respond quickly and stay on once others leave. Different faith communities are present practically everywhere, with structures and networks in place, and a shared ethos that prioritizes protection and hospitality. 

Guterres voiced two expectations of FBOs: "Help create and strengthen welcoming communities for refugees" and "more effectively contribute to the achievement of durable solutions". Two working groups focused on these topics while a third considered cooperation between UNHCR and FBOs. 

It was agreed that faith communities have great potential to transform the legal provision of asylum into a reality in the host country, through healing, reconciliation, creating positive attitudes, fighting xenophobia and building bridges.

The discussions yielded good practices: faith communities joining forces to combat xenophobia, cooperating with the police to prevent and report on hate crimes and educating congregations to create welcoming communities.

The need for interreligious dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence was underlined. For it is a reality that "violence and persecution are also perpetrated in the name of religion", as Guterres said, adding that it was usually politicians who exploited religion.

The challenges of FBOs emerged clearly. One is being perceived in a negative light by other humanitarian actors, who fear FBOs are either favouring refugees of their own faith, or trying to proselytise those who are not. There was unanimous agreement on respecting the core humanitarian principles – impartiality and non-discrimination, equality and protection against any kind of conditionality. As one participant said: "Respond to need and not to creed."

Lack of appreciation is another obstacle. Guterres acknowledged that UNHCR has not always grasped the full potential and relative advantages of FBOs. "The key recommendation that we take away… is the need for humanitarian actors, including UNHCR, to deepen their understanding of religious traditions across faiths and to become more 'faith literate'." 

The taskforce that helped prepare the dialogue, including JRS Geneva representative Michael Gallagher SJ, was formalised into a network. Its brief includes developing the faith literacy project to train UNHCR staff as well as principles to guide UNHCR's engagement with FBOs. As for FBOs, Guterres backed the call that emerged in the meeting for a code of conduct for faith leaders in refugee situations. 

Hopefully the long-term outcome of the meeting will be – as Guterres augured – better partnerships not only between UNHCR and FBOs but also among FBOs themselves. 

The dialogue has helped JRS to better appreciate its character as an international FBO with distinct strengths:

  • Relying on a strong international network of solidarity, working together with local Jesuit and Church communities to reach refugees quickly in emergencies.
  • Sharing key values with other faiths: compassion, hope, justice and hospitality in action.
  • Welcoming people from different faiths to join JRS teams worldwide.
  • A comprehensive service, defined by our founder as human, pedagogical and spiritual, which nurtures hope, healing, reconciliation and resilience.
  • Listening and giving refugees, whatever their faith, the space to talk about the hand of God in their story.
  • Pastoral services for Catholic refugees in response to need, offered distinctly from other services.

This article was published in the latest issue of Servir – click here to read more.