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CWS, UNHCR Sponsor Roundtable on Religious Persecution, Refugees

By Thomas Abraham

BALTIMORE, Md. -- After 50 years of assessing refugee status on the grounds of religious persecution, officials charged with this responsibility are asking how the changing meanings of "religion" and "persecution" apply to the millions whose destinies they decide.

A roundtable of immigration and refugee experts gathered in Baltimore last week [10/30-31], in a meeting co-sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Church World Service, to discuss how both religion and persecution have become far more complex than when the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees came into force in the wake of World War II.

To ascertain refugee status, UNHCR interviews tens of thousands who flee their countries each year. The Convention and the related 1967 Protocol spell out the grounds on which refugee status is to be determined. People who say they’ve fled for fear of religious persecution are on the rise, as issues of gender, culture and identity increasingly impact religion.

The UN body is seeking far-ranging expertise in interpreting the terms of the Convention and related treaties governing these religion-based claims. The conveners of the Baltimore roundtable hope a comprehensive set of guidelines will emerge to aid UNHCR in making fair and reasoned adjudications in the 21st century.

In addition to UNHCR staff, the 38 international participants invited to the roundtable included academicians, jurists, religious lawyers, refugee advocates, two immigration judges, and State Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service representatives. Tibetan asylee in the US Amchok Gyamtso and Indian Sikh asylee in Canada US Sadhu Madahar told their stories of persecution, exile and asylum.

Church World Service, the global humanitarian agency of the 36 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican member denominations of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches, has been instrumental in resettling over 400,000 refugees in the US since 1946. One of the largest humanitarian aid agencies, it administers refugee processing programs in Nairobi, Kenya, and Accra, Ghana, through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State. The two offices represent ten voluntary agencies in resettling some 20,000 refugees from sub-Saharan Africa in the U.S. each year. Admissions have slowed as a result of increased security screens after 9/11.

Jeremy Gunn, who serves on a panel of experts for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, contends that those who define "religion" fail to look at what it means to the persecutor.

Gunn points out that "obtaining reliable evidence in religion cases is probably more difficult than in any other asylum issue." Reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on Religion or Belief and the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, issued by the US Department of State, are two of the best sources of information, despite their handicaps and shortcomings, he added.

One government representative said 9/11 was an opportunity for Islam to change how it is perceived. "We have a right to expect more from Muslims who insist theirs is a religion of peace," he added.

But a law professor pointed out that Christians were not asked to reinterpret their faith as a result of the Oklahoma bombings. She also warned of a neo-Orientalist understanding of religion-based refugee claims by Muslim women. "The premise that persecution is Islamic silences their actual claims," she said.

Gunn‘s background paper for the roundtable rules out the likelihood that religious discrimination and persecution will decline over the next decade. Gunn said increasing numbers of claims are likely from China, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. He attributed the rise in religious persecution to religious fundamentalism, reaction against symbols of power like the US, and tighter control over religious groups as a byproduct of economic modernization.

A second paper was submitted by Karen Masulo, who was lead attorney in a case that established that a successful claim to asylum could be based on fear of female genital mutilation. Her paper examined international agreements on the right to freedom of religion as well and analyzed how religion-based refugee claims were treated by the US, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Miami Thomas Wenski cut short his participation to attend to Haitians detained by the Coast Guard after jumping ship October 29 into the shallows off Key Biscayne, Florida.


Thomas Abraham is Information Officer for the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program.

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