Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal: The challenge of building communities of sanctuary and welcoming refugees
Brexit has introduced a new sensitivity to borders but, says the Rev Dr Inderjit Bhogal, we need to build cultures of welcome and hospitality and act with protective care for all who are in need of sanctuary
CAN Christians, who hold to the promise of the Kingdom of God, accept a situation where people's human rights, and human dignity, are deemed to disappear at a border? That question is at the heart of our reflections as Churches across Britain and Ireland prepare to mark Sanctuary Sunday, at the end of Refugee Week, on June 26.
Since Brexit, there has been a new sensitivity to the significance and impact of borders on the island of Ireland and between Britain and Ireland. People have rightly been concerned about the impact of any friction, in terms of queues, or checks, or restrictions, at the borders we cross in our normal daily lives, in terms of our sense of identity and belonging.
But can those of us who are British or Irish passport holders truly understand a situation where one's human rights, and very dignity as a human person, appear to evaporate in an instant because of a line on a map?
This is the lived reality of millions of people around the world today, many of whom are detained having committed no crime. Families are ripped apart. People are stripped of their independence and often left destitute.
Jesus' followers turn to his story about the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37), where a man despised for his faith offered compassion and care for a wounded man. The story illustrates how compassion is not restricted by borders and identity.
Biblical witness carries a call for the protection and safety of people whose lives are in danger while their case is processed (Numbers 35). God called on Moses to set up cities of refuge to ensure this.
In this wisdom is the root of the contemporary movement and network of City of Sanctuary, which has led to the development of the Church of Sanctuary work.
Sanctuary is built on protective safety, and it challenges hostility with hospitality. In all human faith and practice, hospitality is the established way of handling difference and transcending borders and barriers, and expressing respect for the worth of people, especially those considered to be least worthy and most excluded.
A Church of Sanctuary will respond to refugees on the basis of fact not fiction, hospitality not hostility, and will do this as integral to Christian discipleship.
A new resource has been prepared entitled Sanctuary: the Hospitality of Host, Guest and Stranger to help churches open up these conversations in the context of Refugee Week.
Northern Ireland has long been a place of stark contrasts. Throughout the conflict we have seen how extremes of violence and compassion, brutality and generosity, can exist side by side in communities. We see similar contrasts today with the very generous public responses to the plight of refugees, notably in the recent response to people fleeing Ukraine, and heart-warming stories of refugees who are happily living fulfilling lives here, adapting to local culture while also sharing their own story and culture.
At the same time, some of the fear of the other and insecurity about one's own community identity that is part of the legacy of the conflict, finds expression in racism and hate crimes against refugees and migrants. It should be of grave concern to all, and to churches in particular, that of the rise in hate crime recorded by the PSNI for last year, the greatest overall increase was in racist crimes and attacks.
As Christians, we cannot afford to be complacent about threats to the safety and wellbeing of our vulnerable neighbours. In challenging the harmful misinformation that targets and demonises we have good news stories to share.
Many church communities here have been enriched and transformed by the presence of people from other nationalities and cultures. For young people growing up in a society with a history of sectarianism and division, multiculturalism is a sign of hope for the future, and there is much that we can learn from the way they have welcomed newcomers in their schools, universities, clubs and communities.
May God, our refuge and shelter, who takes sanctuary in us, strengthen our resolve to be people of sanctuary, that we might build cultures of welcome and hospitality and act with protective care for all who are in need of sanctuary. We pray for a world without war in which all can live safely and without fear in their own homes.
The Rev Dr Inderjit Singh Bhogal is a leading theologian and Methodist minister. He retired in 2018 and is currently working with Churches Together in Britain and Ireland to develop and promote the idea of Church of Sanctuary. He is founder and President of City of Sanctuary, a former President of the Methodist Conference and former Leader/CEO of the Corrymeela Community and former CEO of Yorkshire and Humber Faiths Forum. He was awarded the World Methodist Peace Prize in 2022 for his work with the Sanctuary movement.