IKETH annual conference 2016

Being on the Move – Experiences of Refugee Women and their
Host Communities Orthodox Academy Crete, September 23-27, 2016


Over the past year hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have been „on the move“, escaping from situations of brutal wars and unbearable misery. Thousands have welcomed them in Europe and helped in empathetic and generous ways.
But as the massive flow of people did not stop, problems began to surface: There was growing fear that among the refugees might be terrorists; fear that Europe might be „overrun“ and an unease, as rightist parties and movements cashed in on these developments.
Where are we, one year later? How did refugees and hosts deal with the new situation? Which role did religion play? And what were experiences and hardships of women?

Welcome to the Orthodox Academy, Crete
IKETH participants – 26 women from nine  countries – were welcomed warmly by Academy director Dr. Konstantinos Zorbas and by study director Katerina Karkala- Zorba who was both, host and lecturer at the conference.
Dr. Zorbas reminded the conference that this moment of challenges to Europe – living with the Brexit, facing the humanitarian crisis of the continuing arrival of refugees, and experiencing the growth of populist movements– was maybe the ideal situation to “speak and to listen” and to test the quality of Europe’s democracies.

While Crete is not on the way refugees take across the Aegean sea, it is nonetheless prepared to welcome up to 2000 refugees. During a visit to Castelli  conference participants met with women samaritans, who received  special training and work on a voluntary basis dealing with refugees arriving and in need of help. The island is ready to help and feels well prepared for the task.

The hospitable atmosphere and the beautiful location of the academy with its sweeping views over the sea and the Cretan mountains was the perfect setting for a continuous process of exchange, conversations, for speaking and listening, testing new insights and networking.

Hearing the Stories
Conference participants heard reports of young women who have been involved in volunteering at hotspots of refugee movements:  
Humanitarian aid specialist Liska Bernet from Switzerland served half a year on the island of Lesbos, before she moved on to Athens to help establish a centre that offers activities that would help in the integration process and strengthen the self-worth of  the people;
Ivana Gabalova, working in the Netherlands, reported on efforts in the same direction. Both stressed the importance of self care among the refugees. They need help, but help offered according to their needs. Both also recognized the need for a more structured approach to volunteering, which continues to be an important segment of the help offered.

The situation in Serbia differs, Sara Rajic from Belgrade, (presently student of international relations at the university of Graz, Austria), emphasized.  She also reported on occasional irregularities, which served to raise suspicions and weaken the atmosphere of trust that is needed in the exceptional situation of refugees.
Furthermore, people in Serbia knew that refugees would continue to the North of Europe, which changed the attitudes of both, refugees and helpers.

Analysing Patterns of Migration
In her keynote lecture Regina Polak, professor for practical theology at the University of Vienna, pointed to the very diverse forms of migration which comprise people fleeing from life threatening situations,  rejected asylum seekers, contractural labourers, but also highly paid “ex-pat” executives who move from country to country, always staying in the same luxurious environment.
Migration is one of the ambivalent consequences of globalisation and the mobility and instant communication that came in its wake. It is a symptom for the processes of exclusion and inclusion that can be observed on a world-wide scale. At the core of “group related hostility against other human beings” (gruppenbezogene Menschenfeindlichkeit)  is the fact that many people are excluded  by economic processes and consequently are considered  “useless” as human beings.
(W. Heitmeyer).

  • Migration as a whole is not the reason for all the current political and cultural problems in Europe, nor is religion. But migration makes these problems visible and dynamizes them. Religion plays an ambivalent role in this situation: It can foster problems or be a part of finding solutions. Migration reveals the role of religion in a society.

  • Dr. Polak, however, also saw possibilities for intervention at the micro- meso- and macro-levels. Especially she emphasized the importance of communities and their resources for building up civil society. The goal is “convivencia” , learning to live together and to consider diversity, also religious diversity, as normal.

  • The theological work accompanying this process therefore must not be a  reflection on “the stranger”, but rather one on the perception of humankind as a whole and on a new  vision of the world community as a family of people/s.

  • In her response to Regina Polak, Katerina Karkala-Zorba from the Orthodox Academy emphasized that Orthodox theology would put “love for one’s neighbour” first and make it the criterion against which to measure all actions.

  • Migration movements are not new phenomena, they happened throughout history.
    Religion can help us to better understand the stranger. Indeed, the biblical command is to love the stranger (and even the enemy, cf. the biblical book of Leviticus chapter 19 and the sermon on the Mount which took up that theme). 
    All religions affirm the humanity of the “other” and  the mystery of being different of each human being.
    In orthodoxy there are certain theological concepts that might help to develop a positive understanding of what is happening in migration. These include the concept of the church as a people being on the move; and  the idea of the “liturgy after the liturgy” (Jon Bria), meaning to say that the involvement in social and political issues is a form of continuing the liturgy (which plays a central role in orthodox Christianity).
  • Some Gender Related Issues  – Sexual Violence and Dress Codes
    “Sexual violence happens everywhere, also in refugee camps”: Thus the findings of  Rosanne Anholt’s research on  sexual violence in conflict situations at the department for Political Science at the Free University of Amsterdam. The figures she presented were staggering: An estimated 20% of women suffer sexual violence, often as a means of warfare or as a consequence of disclosure of such violence by family members who punish the victims rather than the perpetrators.
    This makes the collection of evidence difficult. And often reported incidents/suspicions  are not taken seriously enough.

    The discussion of dress codes is not new, but at the moment hotly debated in several European countries (notably France and Switzerland). Ismeta Begic from Bosnia and Herzegovina stressed the religious character of Islamic dress and the personal decision involved in wearing it. No woman can be forced into that decision: “It is between God and herself ”.
    However, as a secular state, Bosnia does not allow women in governmental positions wearing dress, identified as religious,  or other religious symbols, irrespective of which religion they signify.

    Reinhild Traitler took as starting point a law, recently introduced in the Swiss canton of Ticino, which prohibits  wearing a burka or niqab. A people’s initiative that would prohibit this in all of Switzerland, will  soon follow.
    The new burka debate has to be seen in the context of  an  ideologically loaded  suspicion against Islamic clothing as the visible manifestation  of Islam in the public sphere. “In the interpretation of a majority of people it is the opposite of what Western societies emulate as their values: Freedom, equality, justice and security. Muslim women’s clothing is often seen as an example of  inequality, oppression, threats of violence and lack of self determination” (Nicola Möhler).
    It is the issue that serves as a mirror for projections concerning cultural diversity and one’s own identity. It always works on the assumption that fully veiling  oneself can never be a voluntary act. And that nudity and revealing the body is an act of emancipation.

    Deepening and Networking – Glimpses from the Work in Groups
    Most of the work of the conference took place in work groups which accompanied and further developed some ideas put forward by the lectures.
    Participants  looked first at concepts of hospitality in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, all of which have strong commitments to hospitality not only towards one’s own kin but also towards strangers. They also  shared reports of the refugee situation in some countries, particularly in Greece and the Balkans. There was little understanding for the attitude of countries like Hungary or Poland which closed their  borders completely and put in question the self-image of Europe as an open and generous continent.
    However there was also recognition that refugees had been welcomed in many places with  compassion and empathy for their plight. 

    There was also mention of  fear in  some parts of  local populations over the fact that not all  refugees had been registered and there was no absolute certainty that terrorists or Syrian war criminals had not  mixed with the masses of people that moved along the Balkan route in 2015. However, this does not excuse the racist and demagogical  politics of  right wing parties and the way they foment fear and mistrust  among  local people (or even incite them to the extent that they commit criminal acts, such as attacks against refugees’ homes).  

    What could be the contributions  offered by different religious communities to meeting the challenges, at micro-, meso- and macro levels?

    This was the central question addressed by the groups.
    Here some glimpses:
    At micro-levels religious institutions are well prepared for immediate relief and help, often coupled with first steps toward integration (sharing of food, accommodation, language courses, housing, etc) and the recognition that people also need spiritual care, not in any confessional sense but by affirming their humanity and their rights.

    Involving themselves, religious institutions need to take into account that they are dealing with severely traumatized people; that there are cultural and/or religious gaps;  that women often face the additional handicap of  poor education in patriarchal environments and that there is a continuous threat of (sexual) violence.  Therefore all groups stressed the importance of having specific programmes for women only.
    In all programmes the self help of refugees should be developed and strengthened – to avoid  the “power of the giver” which victimizes the receiver and keeps him/her dependent.

    At meso-levels, at the level of communities, there are  particular needs and opportunities for action. At this level spaces for interreligious dialogue and experiences could be created and are in fact being created. IKETH is such a space, and there are others (at local level there are many experiments, such as the House of Religions in Bern, Switzerland).
    At this level new initiatives could be developed and shared, e.g. an accompaniment programme for asylum seekers, where interreligious teams are available for helping in the process of settling in, easing potential tensions and addressing problems.
    Or  models of interreligious hospital chaplaincy  could be developed and tested by interreligious teams.
    At meso-level also many educational efforts take place: Interreligious cooperation in education efforts should be developed in a spirit of diversity and be made visible as a counter-narrative  to the media narrative of religion (particularly Islam).

    At Macro-levels it is important to create a new understanding of  “the other’s religion”. E.g. Europe has a history of bad relationships between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  People of different religions therefore need to think in terms of a common future on the continent.
    Religious leaders should  be in the forefront of this change: There is symbolic value in the mutual visits  by religious leaders, including women leaders who can serve as role models. There would also be value in having  leaders of different religious communities sit down at a common table to listen to refugees, men and women, and to speak unequivocally on an end to war and violence.
    It is further important to highlight the peace potential in religions. At the moment the war potential of fundamentalist groups which claim religions for their purposes, is more present.
    Finally: All actions need to nurture a sense of respect for the humanity of the other. Human rights are for all and: “There are no limits to humanity” –  turning back people back at closed borders – as long as Europe is involved (through arms trade and military participation) in conflicts which create humanitarian catastrophies and inflict suffering on innocent people.

    This needs advocacy and critical distance, and a lot of stamina!
    But, as one group affirmed:
    “Don’t waste your energy in judging the others.
    Do something!

    What else?
    Greeting shabbath and havdala.
    Beautiful meditations sharing our yearning for living together  in  peace
    Lots of good food
    Not to forget enjoyment and a lot of laughter!
    Saying good-bye to outgoing IKETH president Reinhild Traitler and IKETH treasurer Susanne Wolf
    and greeting Ursula Rapp, professor of religious pedagogy at Salzburg university, as the new president
    with gratitude to IKETH’s donors
    and with joy that we could be together, young and old from so many different places and such diverse backgrounds, Christians, Jews, Muslims, or women committed out of a deep-felt  concern for humanity!


    November 3, 2017

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

(until and including the annual meeting 2016)

Reinhild Traitler, chair, Martina Heinrichs, Naida Huskanovic,
Anne-Maria Van Hilst and
Susanne Wolf

Report from the conference 2016 >>
Report from the conference 2015 >> 
Photos from the conference 2012 >>
Photos from the conference 2011 >>
The lecture of Rebecca Masterton 2010 >>