“And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”– Deut. 10:19

In the summer of 2020, Europeans found themselves grappling with the significance of a global anti-racism movement. With protests flaring up from Paris to Berlin, politicians hurried to position themselves as sympathetically as possible. On the 16th of June, the European Parliament convened a debate on “the anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd,” ultimately passing a resolution that “affirm[ed] that Black Lives Matter,” and “strongly condemn[ed] all forms of racism, hate and violence” while “recall[ing] that there is no place for racism and discrimination in our [European] societies.”

As this example shows, many of Europe’s politicians were clear in signalling their solidarity with marginalised peoples and with the Black Lives Matter cause. For the continent that gave birth to colonialism, this resolution of the EU Parliament was surely a milestone.

The reality in the refugee camps of Greece, however, and Europe’s increasingly aggressive asylum and deportation policies, paint a very different picture.

Five years on from the European ‘summer of migration’, tens of thousands of refugees remain locked out of Europe, languishing in camps at the continent’s frontiers. Crowded, lacking in sanitation or sewerage, and mired in labyrinthine asylum bureaucracy, asylum seekers and refugees alike slowly lose hope that Europeans will ever admit them to their society. In the last five years, political hearts have hardened dramatically, as asylum policies across Europe increasingly work to deter, to discourage, and to deport.

In light of this, one wonders whether Europe’s lawmakers really believe the words of their resolution from July 16th.

In contrast to the squalid conditions of refugees on Europe’s borders and the increasingly anti-refugee policies of Europe’s politicians, the leaders of the historical churches of Europe – Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox – have remained consistent in their demands for compassion and justice for refugees and asylum seekers. Not only have the churches been clear in their messaging, but they have also invested enormous material aid in supporting, protecting and accommodating refugees across the continent. In doing so, the churches have increasingly come into conflict with both the populist far-right and the centre-right – often explicitly Christian or ‘Christian democratic’ – parties of European governments and find themselves increasingly opposed to the establishment.

“I was a stranger and you let me in” – Christian Teaching on Refugees and Migrants

Christian reflections on the global refugee crisis often take certain verses in the Old and New Testaments as their point of departure. The Torah contains at least thirteen separate exhortations to love the foreigner, or to treat the foreigner with justice and compassion.1 “When a foreigner resides among you or in your land,” so we read in Leviticus, “do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”2 

This injunction finds further support in the New Testament. Regarding the treatment of strangers, nowhere is Jesus more direct than in Matthew 25. Describing the works of the blessed, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in. […] as often as you did this to the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”3 But to those who did not welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, or visit the sick and imprisoned, he warns, “the King will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Following the Scriptural witness, the leaders of Europe’s established churches have overwhelmingly fallen in line behind a unified message of solidarity, compassion and justice towards refugees in the 21st century. In doing so, they have increasingly brought themselves into conflict with national governments, and made themselves the ironic enemies of far-right political parties and identitarian movements, especially those who claim to be crusading against migrants for the sake of ‘Christian Europe.’

Pope Francis, for instance, is known for his compassionate attitude towards refugees. For his first pontifical visit outside of Rome in 2013, Francis travelled to the island of Lampedusa, a major arrival point for refugees, signalling that the plight of refugees would be central to his pontificate. In his sermon he repeatedly quoted the words of God to Cain, “where is your brother?” Decrying the culture of “globalised indifference,” Francis lamented that “today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters.”

Throughout his Pontificate, Francis has remained consistent on the refugee issue. At the 6th International Forum on Migration and Peace in 2017, he preached that the Christian response to refugees and migrants should be characterised by four verbs: “to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate.” Francis preached that Christians possess a “duty of solidarity,” stating that solidarity is born “from the capacity to understand the needs of our brothers and sisters who are in difficulty and to take responsibility for these needs.” The Pope’s messaging on refugees has been echoed by the various national conferences of Catholic bishops across western and northern Europe, including in Germany, France, Austria, and Scandinavia.

The major Protestant churches of Europe preach much of the same message. Since 2015, various European Protestant federations and ecumenical bodies – representing Reformed, Lutheran and United denominations – issued statements reaffirming the duty of Christians to welcome and support refugees and exhorting the Churches and member states of the EU to deepen their efforts.

National Protestant churches have been even more active: the Evangelical Church in Germany, for example, has been a major advocate for proactive and compassionate refugee policies, even financing a rescue ship currently deployed in the Mediterranean. Earlier in 2020 in an unprecedented ecumenical action, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches of the five Nordic countries issued a joined declaration, urging European nations to take responsibility for the resettlement of refugees, stating that “claiming to protect Christian values by shutting out those who seek safe refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermined Christian witness in the world and raises up national borders as idols.”

The teaching of the Eastern Orthodox Church also finds resonance with its western counterparts here. In 2016, ten Churches of the Eastern Orthodox communion met for a Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete. There they issued an Encyclical that, after quoting the words of Christ in Matthew 25, addressed the refugee issue by stating, “we call on the civil authorities, the Orthodox faithful and the other citizens of the countries in which they [refugees] have sought refuge and continue to seek refuge to accord them every possible assistance, even from out of their own insufficiency.” In 2020, a publication of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Orthodox social teaching reaffirmed this position, describing the refugee issue as “a personal appeal to our faith, to our deepest moral natures, to our most inabrogable responsibilities.”

Such broad ecumenical consensus at the level of church leadership has few parallels in any other moral issue. Churches in the global North, especially in Europe, face deep divisions and conflicts over issues such as sexuality, marriage, and the ordination of women. At a time when Christian denominations fracture along ethical fault lines, the clear consensus of Europe’s churches on the issue of refugees and migration is worthy of reflection and recognition.

Solidarity vs. Identity: The Tragic Paradox of Europe’s ‘Christian’ Politics

On a continent once synonymous with Christendom, the Christian injunction to love the foreigner and welcome the stranger has proved unpopular. Admittedly, a brief outpouring of compassion took place in the summer of 2015. But when a million people arrived – mostly black, brown, and Muslim people – Europe panicked, and sharply changed its course. 

In March 2016, the EU struck a deal with President Erdogan of Turkey, in which Turkey agreed to implement boat-‘turnbacks’ to prevent Syrian refugees from reaching the EU. Countries such as Germany, France and the Nordic states have drastically reduced the numbers of refugees they are prepared to resettle. Restrictions on asylum seekers throughout the EU have become more punitive, while deportation processes have become stealthier and more efficient.

In Greece, for example, the New Democracy party passed a new asylum law in January 2020, making it harder for people to apply for asylum, while speeding up deportation mechanisms. As of mid-2020, Greece has been credibly accused of deporting asylum seekers by setting them adrift on inflatable rafts in international waters. Since 2016, laws design to deter asylum claims and speed-up deportations have come into effect in Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark, Hungary and Italy. The Czech government remains committed to accepting zero refugees, while Austria and Poland also pursue similar and increasingly hard-line policies. Almost no European ports will accept asylum seekers arriving by boat, leaving some rescue ships adrift with nowhere to dock

What is interesting is how many of these hard-line policies are driven by parties and politicians who identify explicitly with Christianity. The website of Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz repeatedly describes the party’s agenda as ‘Christian democracy.’ The hard-right Lega Party of Matteo Salvini, which governed in Italy until recently, frequently used Catholic symbols and language at its rallies: Salvini declared that he “entrusted Italy to the Immaculate Heart of Mary” shortly before banning refugee rescue ships from docking in Italian ports. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union increasingly push an anti-refugee agenda, including faster deportation to Afghanistan. The German Interior Minister, Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union, recently blocked German states from evacuating migrants from Greek refugee camps and infamously joked he wanted 69 Afghans deported for his 69th birthday.

There is a tragic religious irony about Europe’s increasingly hostile stance on refugees. On one hand, the leaders of Europe’s major churches are clear in their solidarity and support for refugees and asylum seekers. They call for a radical reorientation of public policy: in the Pope’s words, “to welcome, to protect, to promote, and to integrate.” They know that Christians must be on the side of the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden, the foreigners seeking protection in a strange land.

On the other hand, the loudest anti-refugee voices often come from Christian politicians who engage in a populist brand of identity politics. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union has virulently pushed the German government for a harsher stance on refugees, while also demanding that crucifixes be displayed in all public offices throughout Bavaria. Parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice Party see themselves as a last line of defence for Christendom against the foreign hordes of “Muslim invaders.” According to the Catholic World Report, many of the leaders of the Polish Law and Justice Party are “authentically devout Catholics” and many reportedly “are members of St Josemaria Escriva’s movement.” This “authentic devotion,” however, falls short of embracing a radical solidarity with the Other.

Refugees, National Politics, and Christian Love

On the topic of refugees and migrants, both the scriptures and the official teachings of the churches are clear. Christianity demands radical solidarity with foreigners, whether in the Torah’s command to “love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” [Lv 19:34] or Christ’s warning, “I was a stranger, but you did not invite me in” [Mt 25:43]. This “duty of solidarity,” as Pope Francis calls it, is not meant to be easy. The Pan-Orthodox Synod recognised this difficulty in emphasising our duty to assist refugees “even out of our own insufficiency.” Our resources may be insufficient, but we are called to welcome the stranger all the same.

On the other hand, the anti-refugee and pro-deportation policies of Europe’s Christian politicians underlines a growing split between the identity-based ‘civilizational Christianity’ of cultural preservationists, and the radical, loving, and compassionate Christianity of the diminished communities of believers. This is a split that will grow in significance as identitarian and populist movements continue to invoke ‘Christian heritage’ and the legacy of Christendom in pursuit of racist agendas.

This paradox has led to nowhere for the tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who remain in danger – of violence, of physical and mental trauma, of deportation, and of Covid-19 – in the overcrowded camps on Europe’s periphery. But although this paradox leads nowhere, it reveals much. It reveals the hypocrisy of Europe’s leadership. It reveals the hypocrisy of “woke” and ostensibly anti-racist politicians who are prepared to leave tens of thousands of refugees on Lesbos in the midst of a pandemic. And beyond that, it reveals the hollowness of the ‘civilizational Christianity’ of politicians and identitarians that has nothing in common with the scriptural and ethical vision of Christianity.

The compassionate position of the churches is not naïve. Christians understand that to love and welcome the stranger involves a risk. Love in every form entails a risk. And nonetheless, our duty of solidarity compels us to welcome the strangers and tend to their needs in love. For once, the leaders of the largest Christian denominations agree on a major moral question, with an ecumenical consensus and anti-populist courage that is remarkable. By contrast, the identitarian fears of Europe’s ‘Christian democratic’ politicians makes one thing clear: Christian love is not made for nationalist or bourgeois politics. It is too radical for the risk averse.

  1. Ex. 12:49; Ex. 22:21; Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33-34; Lev. 23:22; Lev. 24:22; Lev. 25:35; Deut. 10:18; Deut. 10:19; Deut. 24:14; Deut. 24: 17-18; Deut. 24:19-22; Deut. 27:19.
  2. Lev. 19:33-34.
  3. Mt. 25: 35-40.

Tim Redfern holds a Master of Social Policy from the University of Melbourne and works as a disability services consultant in Berlin, Germany. His interests include historical theology, comparative religion, international politics and economic democracy. Tim worships with the Anglican community in Berlin and is a member of the Berlin Christians on the Left working group.