Religious leaders gather in Geneva to discuss faith and refugee protection
GENEVA, December 12 (UNHCR) - Around 400 people, including religious leaders and faith experts, gathered in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss how the values of different world religions underpin refugee protection and humanitarian action for millions of forcibly displaced and stateless people.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, opening his informal two-day Dialogue on Protection Challenges 2012, noted that all major faiths "share the notion of the stranger who must be given protection."
Although UNHCR was not a faith-based organization, he said, "When I came here [in 2005], I soon discovered in its work the same principles that are enshrined in my own beliefs. I also realized that the values of caring for those in need were equally shared by all major religions. This is of fundamental importance for refugee protection."
The High Commissioner, addressing diplomats, UNHCR staff and humanitarian aid workers as well as the religious leaders, faith experts and people working for faith-based organizations present, said this year's Dialogue theme, "Faith and Protection," was partly inspired by discussions at annual consultations between UNHCR and its NGO partners.
The NGOs encouraged UNHCR to look at the role that faith plays in protection work and at ways in which a more strategic engagement of faith-based organizations and religious communities could contribute to improving protection for people of concern to UNHCR.
A number of experts from faith-based organizations helped prepare the groundwork for this week's gathering in Geneva. In collaboration with UNHCR, the background document providing principles and guidance for discussion was put together by a group including Atallah Fitzgibbon of Islamic Relief, Helen Stawski from the Anglican Church, and Ralston Deffenbaugh of the Lutheran World Federation.
"Our main points are that the churches, by nature of being embedded in communities, are often at the front lines of dealing with disasters, but also protracted situations, and our job is to try and help those churches to respond in the best way that they can," Stawski, who works as the Archbishop of Canterbury's deputy secretary for international development, told UNHCR.
She described this year's Dialogue as a "watershed moment," and added that "Whenever we engage on faith issues it is not uncontroversial, but I think that it is a very bold move and a very welcome move."
Deffenbaugh, who is the Lutheran World Church's assistant general secretary for international affairs and human rights, welcomed this year's theme and said many of today's conflicts had a religious angle, noting that in some cases militants of different religions persecute or physically attack those of other faiths.
"We are delighted that the High Commissioner has chosen to use his convening power, his global moral authority, to try to bring together religious leaders so there would be a platform where religious leaders can try to share that common compassion, that common humanity, and hopefully begin a type of dialogue over many years that will reinforce that and expand the humanitarian space," said Deffenbaugh.
Guterres, meanwhile, noted that the principles of modern refugee law have their roots in ancient Greek, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist texts and traditions, adding that all major religious value systems embrace humanity, caring and respect as well as the tradition of granting protection to those in danger.
He said it was vital that the religious freedom of all refugees be guaranteed by the countries receiving them and by the humanitarian agencies assisting them. Faith was central to helping most displaced people cope with their trauma, he added, by providing a form of personal and collective support among victims that was an important element of protection.
UNHCR has been working for decades with faith-based organizations, but Guterres said that there were challenges. These included working in multi-religious humanitarian settings where displaced communities belong to different religious groups. "It is key that partnerships respect the core principles of humanitarian work - impartiality and non-discrimination, equality and protection against any kind of conditionality," said Guterres.
Hopes are that this year's Dialogue, the fifth in a series that began in 2007 and was replaced last year by a ministerial conference, will spur innovative partnership models and pilot partnerships, as well as lead to research, helping both the secular and faith-based organizations to learn what works and what does not.