Religion and the Refugee: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series on Religion and the Refugee. Visit the following links for the introduction to the series, part 1, and part 2 Religion Renews the Refugee

So far in this series we have discussed the definition of a refugee and how persecution on the basis of one's religion forms an integral part of that definition. Then we looked at the role of religion in sparking the conflicts that force refugees into exile - religion creates the refugee. Finally today we consider the importance of religion to refugees who are learning to rebuild their lives in a new place.

For many religious refugees, it is their faith that gives them hope and helps them to persevere in the midst of the difficult and dangerous situations they face. When everything else about their lives is uncertain and unpredictable, their religious rituals, prayers, and holy days give them a familiar rhythm and sense of constancy. Those who practice a major world religion like Christianity or Islam are often provided with a built-in community in their new homes and can connect with a local church or mosque. In Europe and the US refugees will often find that some of their new neighbors are also refugees and have encountered the same challenges of adjusting to a new home that they are now experiencing. This common religion creates a strong bond of community that can result in activism on behalf of fellow members of that community. Churches or mosques where refugees are already members are often those that most actively welcome new refugees to their neighborhoods.

Religion is such a powerful identity marker that many individuals will not abandon their religious beliefs and practices even when conflict within their own religion has forced them to flee their home as refugees. Historically, this phenomenon can be seen in the case of the Protestant Reformation in Europe and the intense persecution of reformers by Roman Catholics. It might seem as if such violent differences between the Roman Catholics and their reformers would cause individuals on both sides to throw in the religious towel, but it didn't. For the most part, both sides continued to steadfastly believe what they were convinced was the truth.

A more recent conflict that exhibits similar characteristics is the violence of Daesh in Syria and Iraq (also referred to as ISIS). The US State Department declared on March 17th that Daesh is committing genocide against minorities in the region. One of those minorities are Shia Muslims. Daesh claims to be the manifestation of true Islam, and so they slaughter anyone who will not convert to their violent and exclusive ideology. Shia Muslims who refuse to participate in Daesh's jihad or contribute to their goal of ushering in an Islamic caliphate are brutally killed or sold into slavery. And yet, even though their lives have been threatened by other Muslims, those who have escaped as refugees into neighboring countries often continue to practice Islam. Why? It is because religious identity runs so deep that even after witnessing the violence of Daesh, many not only refuse to abandon their beliefs, but turn to them for comfort.

On the other hand, a refugee's identity as a religious or spiritual person may manifest itself in an attitude of curiosity about other religions. For those who have experienced violence at the hands of individuals who claimed the same religion, there may be a sense of betrayal that gives them permission to explore other faiths. This response is more likely when a refugee is resettled in a country with increased religious pluralism, which is the case in Western countries. Suddenly a refugee find themself outside of their previous familiar community and begin to meet others who practice many different religions or forms of spirituality. Refugees are vulnerable people, and if they do not cling to their religion as a way to find stability, they may search for a new set of beliefs to offer that security.

No matter which response a refugee experiences, whether the need to deepen their commitment to their current faith, or the desire to explore other forms of religious expression, it is vital that we recognize the importance of religion and the role it plays in helping refugees to rebuild their lives and feel a sense of belonging in a new place. Refugees need to be given space to incorporate religion into their lives as they choose. They need to have spaces available to practice their religion, as well as freedom to learn about a different faith or religion if they wish. They should be encouraged to find peace and renewal in their faith, as well as permission to grieve what they have lost, and motivation to move forward in rebuilding their lives.

Further Reading

For a specific look at religion among Iraqi refugees in Cairo, click here.

A 2003 paper from a faculty member at the University of Washington about the role of religion in the assimilation of US immigrants.