It’s Refugee Week in the UK and around the world. It takes place every year either side of World Refugee Day on the 20 June. In Britain, organisers state the week is ‘a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events that celebrate the contribution of refugees to the UK, and encourages a better understanding between communities’.
It aims, among many other things, to encourage greater understanding and overcome hostility toward refugees, who are sometimes demonised in the press. The Week celebrates diversity and showcases how different cultures and faiths enrich our society.
It’s a great opportunity for interfaith dialogue and relations and there are events happening up and down the country. This year’s theme is, ‘Different Pasts, Shared Future’, which relates beautifully to the coming together of faiths in our country, united in a vision of peaceful and understanding co-existence.
Of course, our planet has a long history of persecution of people due to their faith – and this is happening in the present day, too.
From a faith perspective, it’s important to remember that many faith leaders in Britain – and even Jesus and Muhammad (PBUH) themselves – were refugees.
Jesus was a refugee. Heralded at birth as the new ruler, the son of God, King Herod was threatened and as the Bible tells, he acted in a pre-emptive way by ordering the killing all boys under two in Bethlehem. Jesus, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape this threat to Jesus’s life, becoming refugees.
The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his followers escaped persecution in Mecca and fled to Medina, becoming a refugee. He was cared for by host communities. Due to this, the Quran teaches that Muslims should go to the assistance of people in distress and requires the faithful to protect refugees.
In more recent times, Immanuel Jakobovits, Baron Jakobovits, who died in 1999, escaped Nazi Germany in 1938 and fled to the UK. Jakobovits went on to become the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1967 to 1991. He was knighted in 1981 and became the first Chief Rabbi to enter the House of Lords in 1988 as Baron Jakobovits.
The current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, is also a refugee, having fled Tibet, where he is spiritual leader. In 1959, the Dalai Lama made India his new home, setting up Tibetan farms and school systems where around 80,000 fellow Tibetans settled alongside him.
We pray that remembering these great refugees – and the millions of others around the world – during Refugee Week will go some way to defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities. We are enriched by learning about different faiths and living peacefully, side by side.