Religious leaders uniting on climate in solidarity with refugees, boost UN conference

(Photo: Ivars Kupcis/WCC)Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visits the Ecumenical Center, where the World Council of Churches is based in Geneva during an event linked to the Global Refugee Forum on Dec. 12.

The moment religious leaders from around 40 faith-based organisations worldwide agreed to keep defending the individual right to seek asylum during a gathering in Geneva marked a high point on the eve of the Global Refugee Forum, the world's biggest such international gathering.

They met at a one-day event on Dec. 12 at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, chaired by an Armenian archbishop and a UN diplomat who was once a Turkish legislator.

The chairs were the head of the multi-stakeholder engagement team at the office of the assistant high commissioner for protection at UNHCR, Safak Pavey, and Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, WCC vice moderator and member of the leadership of the WCC central committee, its main governing body between assemblies held about ever seven years.

The WCC-hosted event was held the day before the launch of the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which was expected to draw thousands of participants.

"St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: If one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it. Let us work together to replace despair with hope, fear with human security and humiliation with dignity," said Vicken in his closing remarks.

Those assembled at Geneva's Ecumenical Center represented a broad section of Christianity and representatives of the Bahais, Buddhism, Hindus, Islam, Judaism, and Sikhism.


Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is seen as the first among equal of Orthodox patriarchs said," Climate change and the refugee crisis are no longer an external or remote possibility, far removed from our daily attention and responsibility."

He noted, "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 Patriarch said that the threats the world faces can only be overcome in collaboration.

"And this is where the dialogue and partnership of religious communities proves to be essential and vital," said Bartholomew.

Mohammed Hussein Sulaiman, a member of the UNHCR Global Youth Advisory Council, said, "Through our activities, we want to build peace in our society and see how religion has a good influence as a force for peace."

Roman Catholic Archbishop Buti Tlhagale of Johannesburg in South Africa observed, "The presence of refugees in many countries presents a startling new opportunity to create new societies inclusive of migrants and refugees. Human family, unity, and solidarity are the core values of every religious society.

"We appeal to religious leaders to embrace fully and willingly the vision of a new society and to promote it vigorously."

Rabbi Diana S. Gerson, vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis, brought greetings from the Jewish community.

Rev. Anne Burghardt, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), told the religious leaders, "We cannot ignore the millions of people facing displacement because of climate change and migration due to the surge in extreme weather events related to climate change.

"This situation disproportionately affects vulnerable populations that lack sufficient coping capacities."

She said, "In this Global Refugee Forum, our faith calls us not only to care for the earth but also to foster conditions that will enable all people to coexist as neighbours on this planet, our common home."

Choi Jong-soo from the Korea Conference of Religions said he was honored to participate in the Global Refugee Forum on behalf of the Korean religious community.

"I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Council of Churches, and Religions for Peace for allowing the voice of the Korean religious community to be heard around the world," said Choi


He said the religious community in Korea, which has a strong Christian presence, will lead "a vision of solidarity" across various sectors of society to embrace refugees as members of their community.

"We will collaborate to organize events utilizing occasions such as the UN-designated World Refugee Day, aiming to catalyse social participation," said Choi. They would share their experiences in supporting the successful local integration of refugees.

Noor Azizah, who fled as a young girl from Myanmar's oppression of its Rohingya minority and was stateless for eight years, now lives in Australia and spoke for the Maìyafuìnor Collaborative Network.

"The Rohingya genocide, a tragedy that has unfolded since 1942, has left a mark on our history. As a population with a Muslim majority, along with a small percentage of Christians, Buddhists and Hindus, we have been targeted by the Myanmar government and Buddhist nationalists and extremists simply because of our faith," said Azizah.

Rev. Kyoichi Sugino, president of Rissho Kosei-kai Gakurin Seminary, noted that in 2013, when 900 people gathered in Vienna for the Religions for World Peace Summit, faith people issued a joint statement welcoming refugees.

"Rissho Kose-kai and faith communities in Japan renew our vows to scale up integral and holistic support for refugees through love and compassion in action, multi-religious engagement and multi-stakeholder partnerships with our shared prayer and action," said Sugino.

Bhai Sahib Mohinder Singh of India's Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha and a member of the UNHCR Multi-Religious Council said, "Let us not forget that all of us are spiritual migrants. For only a few years, we are domiciled on this planet."

He said people had to learn to forgive themselves before forgiving others. "So, forgiving us begins with yourself...without forgiveness, you will not resolve conflicts on a sustainable basis."

Among organizations supporting the Joint Inter-faith Pledge were Islamic Relief Worldwide, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran World Federation, Methodist Church Committee, Muslim World League, Saudi Arabia, Jesuit Refugee Service, Latterday Saint Charities, and others.

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