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How can Christians contribute to the integration of refugees?

How can Christians contribute to the integration of refugees?

Petr Štica


As a result of the controversial “political deal” between the European Union and Turkey in March 2016, the number of new refugees coming into Europe has reduced in recent weeks. Thanks to this and the fact that the number of refugees entering into Europe reached its height almost a year ago, another subject comes into the focus of public debate: the issue of the integration of refugees into receiving societies. The following questions are at the center of this debate: How can the integration of refugees be made a success? (By the way, this question is a major theme of the current issue of a leading German weekly magazine Die Zeit.) What can and should political and social actors do to achieve the successful integration of immigrants? What makes for a good integration policy? Increasingly, religions are mentioned in this context. We may ask: How can religion play a positive role in the integration process? What is the role of the local churches and parishes? How can they help immigrants to integrate into a new society, and how else should they help them? These questions apply to individual Christians in their role as citizens, to the Church as institution, and to parish and church associations as well.

Knowing that it is quite difficult to deal with such a complex issue in a short essay (and knowing that the considerations remain therefore inevitably fragmentary), we will consider two forms of Christian engagement directed toward the integration of refugees: (1) integration engagements directed ‘into’ the Church (spiritual and pastoral care, and pastoral structures) and (2) integration engagements directed ‘outside’ the Church (diverse forms of diakonia).

Integration engagements within the Church concern the spiritual and pastoral care of immigrants. Ecclesiastical documents emphasize that the spiritual and pastoral care of immigrants should, wherever possible, be provided in their native language, and call for the establishment of  pastoral structures that are adequate to cater for the number of immigrants involved.   Parishes with immigrant communities have a particular responsibility to promote integration, so that immigrants can experience acceptance in their new environment. For integration of immigrants, it is important that there are good contacts between them and the established believers in local parishes, and that immigrants feel welcome at the church services in the local parish. Priests and pastoral workers specialized in the pastoral care of migrants should actively develop and support contact of migrants with the local parishes. And conversely: Christians in parishes must be open and ready to accept immigrants. “People that celebrate together grow also together” (Albert-Peter Rethmann);  celebrating mass in common contributes to the integration of newcomers. Participation of immigrants in the local parish services and involvement in parish life can naturally contribute to removal of the barriers between ‘natives’ and ‘newcomers’ and help  immigrants in the integration process.

Naturally, integration engagements must also be directed ‘outside’ the Church. These engagements take various forms. It can take the form of assistance, e.g. in providing information, legal advice, assistance in finding work and accommodation, organizing language courses and other practical assistance. In these areas, religious and charitable organizations have long been active. Besides institutionalized help, it is necessary to explicitly mention the voluntary engagements of individual Christians.

However, integration engagements do not target immigrants exclusively; they also extend to local communities and inhabitants. Parishes and church facilities/institutions (e.g. schools) should help educate citizens of receiving states by providing appropriate knowledge and promoting sympathetic understanding about the foreigners and their culture and customs. Anxiety and fear of strangers arise frequently in ignorance and prejudice. By providing information about refugees or – even better – by organizing personal meetings with them, they can contribute to mutual understanding and rapprochement. A further important task of Christians and representatives of the Church is to cultivate public debate on the refugees. They should resolutely oppose any manifestations of intolerance and xenophobia. Another important activity lies in political diakonia. Christians, who stand on the side of the poor, must get involved and be engaged in advocacy for migrants and their rights, e.g. in the form of public statements of support.

Research studies on the integration of immigrants, as well as more recent ecclesial documents, understand the integration of foreigners as a two-way process in which both immigrants/refugees and receiving society participate. They emphasize the social inclusion of newcomers and an approach to immigration that respects plurality of cultures. Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, underlines rightly that in Catholic social teaching migration is interpreted not primarily as a problem but as an opportunity. This perspective determines the relationship between the newcomers and the receiving society, and emphasizes the integration process. Through the adoption of a hospitable attitude and through practical steps that promote full participation while respecting cultural differences, the Church community should be a model for successful integration. The specific position of the Church is that it is itself a multicultural community: a community that embodies unity in diversity. Can we as Christians bear witness about this experience of community that lives this unity in diversity? Can we ‘transfer’ this experience into the actual public debates on acceptance of refugees and their inclusion into receiving societies? One of today’s challenges is to bear witness to the hope that the integration of refugees into receiving societies is not only necessary and important but also possible, and to contribute to the success of the integration process. In both, the role of Christians is very important.