Migrant Christians in Europe: hope stands against fearMigrant Christians in Europe: hope stands against fear

It was certainly a sign of hope that a delegation of migrant Christians participated in the 3rd European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu. “No longer guests but citizens....” (Ephesians 2,19) Not only useful arms for the labour market but citizens in Europe and in our churches. Migrants from Africa and from Asia present in Europe and active members of European churches, very capable delegates at the assembly promoting important issues of human rights and ecumenical concerns.

When politicians in all European countries are looking at migrants mainly as a risk for their national security, when in Italy Roma camps are burning and shops of migrants are damaged by racist activists, when the EU policy is putting a lot of emphasis on the expulsion and repatriating of migrants from all member states, when hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants are dying at the European borders, migrant Christians in our churches are a sign for how these brothers and sisters are enriching our churches and our community life. Their contribution and example stands for the possibilities and opportunities which migrants bring to the European society as a whole.

Hope stands against fear. Fear which makes people blind and can easily be maneuvered by all kind of demagogic propaganda. Large sectors of our society became unable to listen critically and to understand what is really going on in our society. Fear becomes a risk not only for migrants but for all citizens as democracy and fundamental human rights are questioned by political tendencies and strategies which are growing all over Europe.

Experiences like “Uniting in Diversity – Essere Chiesa Insieme”  present a possibility to react differently, to choose hope. More than half of all Protestants in Italy today are migrants. In most Italian Protestant congregations migrants are active members, in many churches they are the majority. The Italian Protestant minority churches have been living this phenomenon for more than 20 years and a special programme is accompanying this development.

This does not only happen in Italy. Migrant Christians are present in all European countries. Most of them are organised in autonomous churches or congregations. The mainstream churches often support these churches but normally do not have much dialogue with them. Different experiences can be found in most free churches where migrants are often integrated in the local congregation in a similar way as in the Protestant churches in Italy, Spain or Portugal. The Churches' Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME) has recently published an interesting research on how churches in the 47 states of the Council of Europe are engaged in work with migrants and refugees, “Mapping Migration” . The need for migrants to express their faith and how they find ways to respond to this need are part of this research.

Migrants who profess a creed need to express their faith. Religion can become a tool for stabilisation, avoiding marginalisation, meanwhile the loss of one’s religious identity may lead to the loss of ethical values. In this case the migrant will be even more disoriented and uprooted in the host society.
The religious communities of the host society can be enriched by the contributions of migrant Christians. Inter-cultural exchange and mutual integration can be experienced and eventually this experience can be transferred to other sectors of social life. Inter-ethnic congregations can become a positive example for the whole of our society and may become a bridging element in the difficult process of building an inter-ethnic society.

It is easy to justify ethnic separate churches. Migrants, mainly the first generation, often prefer ethnic congregations. They feel more at home, they wish to pray in their mother tongue, they wish to defend their identity. All this is true but it is also a dangerous trap. We were critical when in South Africa or in the United States there were separate churches for white and black. Now we find ourselves in a similar situation. As churches we stand up against separate social or health services for migrants and autochtonous people, we refuse separate schools for migrant and local students. How can churches find solutions within their own structures? There is not an easy and definite answer for all situations. We are called to reflect, as decisions will have a long term effect and therefore cannot be based on contingent difficulties. Integration and unity should be our long term aim, but unity does not mean uniformity. Diversity can be respected and will be enriching for all, if there is communion, exchange and mutual acceptance.

This is first of all an ecclesiological challenge which migrant Christian men and women bring into our church life and this questions our being church in general and our striving towards the Universal Church. Churches are called to testify that it is possible and enriching to live, to work and to pray together while belonging to different nationalities, race or culture, that it is possible to build something new together, that it is possible to be united in diversity.

Annemarie Dupré
Former CCME Moderator