Conference: Refugees and Religion

27 September 2018


Organized by Birgit Meyer and Peter van der Veer

Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University and Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen

Date: 27 & 28 September 2018

Venue: Utrecht University, Sweelinckzaal, Drift 21

One of the main political issues today in the entire world, but certainly also in Europe, is that of the refugees. At the end of 2015, there were 21,3 Mill refugees worldwide, according to UN counts. Since 2014 more than 13.901 people have drowned on their flight over the Mediterranean. In attempts to enter Europe since 1993, more than 30.000 people died, with a dramatic rise since 2015. Politically the issue of refugees has been responded to by a nationalist upsurge in Poland, Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Scandinavia, and Britain. In Europe, the question of nationalism and migration now has been shaping the political landscape for more than a decade. This crisis has many aspects, including citizenship rights, national sovereignty, and migration patterns. In the definition of refugees the issue of violent persecution and political force is central. The 1951 UN Geneva Refugee convention and its 1967 Protocol, which set minimum standards for dealing with refugees, defines a refugee as: "any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." Refugees are categorized as a special class of migrants who deserve special protection. Ultimately it is the law that decides about the status of persons applying for asylum whether they are recognized as refugees. 

In this conference, we do not want to limit ourselves to the legal perspectives and ultimate classifications of persons as refugees or ("mere") migrants, but approach the issues from a range of viewpoints of those seeking refuge and involved in the process of being recognized as refugees (even though they may be found to not qualify to be granted asylum), and other actors and institutions who play a role in this process.

Moreover, we want to focus on religion. The secular institutions of the state frame religion, determine what is religion and what is not religion according to the law, delineate the limits of religious authority, religious practice, and religious speech. The extent of the secular production of religion depends on political debate and action. Religious differences can be a cause of civil war and thus of flight to safer areas. Religion can also play a role in giving shelter to those who are on the move. Religion can be an essential part of both the problem and the response to it.

We want to approach the religious aspect of the refugee phenomenon by focusing on the materiality of religion. The refugees bring their religion to new places and create ritual spaces (churches, temples, mosques) to be able to give concrete shape to their traditions. They are received in refugee camps that are sites of religious competition for assistance, networking, and conversion; and after they have left these camps for more settled places the camps become lieux de memoire of the moment of transition into new lives. In the process of the application procedure, refugees may intensify their religious affiliation or convert to another religion.

Another set of issues concerning the materiality of religion is that of death and the dead. Where to bury the dead and how to deal with the dead body in a new environment is one of the questions that concern refugees who settle in foreign lands. What happens when refugees introduce new material practices of religion among populations that are anxious about them? How are traditions materially transmitted over long distances and borders? What can be carried and what has to be left behind? What happens when people are moving from their homes to escape an unbearable present and future? How is the suffering and exodus understood religiously? What is the road to conversion (to the secular or the religious)? What does the category of trauma tells us?
This is not an exhaustive set of questions but an attempt to give an idea of the range of issues that come to mind. Refugees are "persons out of place" and raise a wide set of issues concerning purity and danger. The so-called refugee problem is a global problem and we need thus to place "the European crisis" in a comparative perspective. It is thus important to have detailed accounts from a variety of regional perspectives. The refugee problem of today is historically specific, but at the same time it invites comparative reflection on the various histories of ethnic and religious cleansing and discourses of purity and danger.

Programme conference Refugees and Religion

Thursday 27 September

9.00-9.45 Arrival and Coffee
09.45 Welcome by Birgit Meyer (Utrecht University)
10.00-11.10: Panel 1 (Moderator Birgit Meyer)

- Wayne te Brake (Purchase College State University of New York)
"War, Migration, and the Politics of Religious Pluralism"

- Peter van der Veer (Max Planck Institute, Göttingen and Utrecht University)
"German Refugees"

11.10-12.20 Panel 2 (Moderator Janet Hoskins).
- Phi Vân Nguyen (University of Saint-Boniface)
"Victims of Atheist Persecution. The Role of Cold War Transnational Religious Solidarity in Refugee Protection - The Case of Vietnam"

- Tam Ngo (Max Planck Institute, Göttingen & Radboud University Nijmegen) and Nga Mai (Max Planck Institute, Göttingen)
"In Search of a Vietnamese Buddhist Space in Germany"

12.20-13.30: Lunch

13.30-14.40 Panel 3 (Moderator Phi Vân Nguyen)

- Janet Hoskins (University of Southern California)
"Refugees in the Land of Awes: Vietnamese Arrivals and Departures"

- Thien-Huong Ninh (Cosumnes River College)
"The Virgin Mary Became Asian: Diasporic Nationalism Among Vietnamese Catholic Refugees in the US and Germany"

14.50-16.00 Panel 4 (Moderator Birgit Meyer)

- Heleen Murre-van den Berg (Radboud University Nijmegen)
"Language and Religion in the (Re)Making of the Syriac Orthodox communities in Europe"

- Rafaela Eulberg (University of Bonn)
"A Darśan-Picture as a Journeyed Memento of Refugees: An Example of the Materiality of Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu Traditions in Exile"

16.10-17.20 Panel 5 (Moderator Peter van der Veer)

- Alessandro Gusman (University of Turin)
"'Are We an Elected People?' Religion and the Everyday Experience of Young Congolese Refugees in Kampala"

- Abdoulaye Sounaye (Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin)
"Ritual Space and Religious Practice: Young West African Muslims in Berlin, Germany"

- Drinks
- Dinner (for speakers and moderators)

Friday 28 September

09.30 Coffee
9.45-11.15 Panel 8 (Moderator Annelies Moors, University of Amsterdam)

-Salah Punathil (University of Hyderabad) 
"Migrant 'Illegality', Camp and Violence Against Muslims in the Assam State of North East India, South Asia."

- Ala Uddin (University of Chittagong)
"The Refugee Crisis and Religious Engagement: Suffering, Shelter, and Survival of the Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh"

- Marie Kortam (French Institute of the Near East, Beirut)
"Healer and Resistance by Religion in the Absence of Social and Legal Security in Palestinian Camps"

11.30-12.40: Panel 7 (Moderator Margreet van Es, Radboud University Nijmegen)

- Alexander Nagel (University of Göttingen)
"Religious Diversity in German Refugee Accommodation Centers: Micro-Politics of Spatial Separation and Religious 'Emission Control'"

- Carmen Becker (University of Hannover)
"Becoming a Refugee: Muslimness and Secularity in the Constitution of the 'Refugee'"

12.40-13.45: Lunch

13.45-15.15: Panel 8 (Moderator Birgit Meyer)

-Susanne Stadlbauer (University of Colorado Boulder and University of Wyoming)
"Secrecy, Secrets, and Emergent Religious Identities: Conversion to Christianity Among Refugees in Germany"

- Annelise Reid (Utrecht University)
"The Making of Belief in Secular Times: Negotiating Inclusion Within the Dutch Asylum Context"

- William Wheeler (Manchester University)
"Conversion Through Destitution: Religious Belief and Legal/Bureaucratic Disbelief Within the UK Asylum System"

15.30-16.40: Panel 9 (Moderator Peter van der Veer)

-Christoph Grüll (University of Groningen)
"Faith in an Open Society: Spiritual, Legal, and Political Care in Faith-Based Refugee Responses"

- Markha Valenta (Radboud University Nijmegen)
"Naked in the Sanctuary: The Religious Resistance"

16.50-17.45: General Discussion

Afterwards: Drinks