Church leaders confront ‘statelessness’

American Baptists and the World Council of Churches are co-sponsoring an international meeting focusing on the plight of an estimated 12 million people around the world who are denied rights of citizenship in the countries where they reside.

By Bob Allen

About 50 international Christian leaders convened this week at Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., for a consultation on the rights of the “stateless,” an estimated 12 million people around the world who are not considered a national by any government.

American Baptist Churches USA is host for the Feb. 27-March 1 consultation organized by the World Council of Churches. Titled, Toward an Ecumenical Advocacy on Rights of Stateless People, the gathering is in part preparation for a public statement to be discussed at the upcoming World Council of Churches assembly scheduled Oct. 30-Nov. 8 in Busan, South Korea.

The WCC’s Commission of the Churches in International Affairs first took up the issue of statelessness at its 50th meeting in Albania in 2010. A previous consultation in Bangladesh in December 2011 produced a communiqué recognizing citizenship based on an individual’s nationality as “a universal human right.”

“The Bible itself bears witness to the stateless condition of the Hebrew people and God’s involvement to facilitate for them a homeland and therefore statehood,” participants in the Bangladesh meeting declared.

They cited a popular confession of faith among the Hebrews from that Bible that beings: “A wandering Aramean was my father: and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty and populous” as one example.

“All human beings, irrespective of their race, are created in God’s image and should therefore be respected,” the communiqué stated. “Likewise stateless people and minority/ethnic groups are God’s creation. Therefore we are bound to see that justice is done to them.”

Participants at this week’s consultation are looking at the causes of statelessness as well as ways to address what they have identified as a “neglected concern.”

Stateless persons are not recognized as nationals by any state. They have no nationality or citizenship, and many live in vulnerable situations. Unprotected by any national legislation, the consequences can be profound.

In the 1990s, for example, nearly a quarter million Rohingyas fled from Myanmar into neighboring Bangladesh in order to escape persecution. The government of Bangladesh declared them “illegal economic migrants” and placed them in refugee camps, where they are restricted from formal education, reliable health care and reliable sources of food and income.

The WCC says people become stateless for many reasons. Some are denied citizenship in successor states when their governments cease to exist. Political considerations can apply citizenship laws in ways that discriminate against ethnic minorities. Some individuals become stateless due to personal circumstances rather than persecution of the group to which they belong.

aroymedleyRoy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches USA, led the opening worship service Wednesday and brought greetings to the group.

“Our hope as American Baptists is that through this gathering of the body of Christ we might bring the resources of our faith and our commitment to compassion and justice to bear on the suffering of millions of stateless persons,” Medley said. “Our prayer is that those who suffer may experience (Christ’s) love through all that we accomplish here.”

While American Baptists have long worked with displaced refugees, this is the first consultation on the topic the denomination has held. Medley said it is occasioned by exponential growth in human migration and statelessness due to political, ecological, military and religious conditions around the world.

Other Baptist entities involved in the consultation include the Baptist World Alliance, Calvary Burmese Church, Myanmar Baptist Convention, the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc., and the American University Baptist Ministry. Other faith groups represented include Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Church of the Brethren and United Methodist.

Medley said with other faith communities, American Baptists desire to “deal with the root causes” of statelessness and address the issue with compassion and justice.

“ABCUSA has a long history of commitment to the resettlement of refugees from around the world, even though it is a relatively small denomination,” Medley said. “While the issues regarding refugees and stateless people are not exactly the same, the response from churches can be. Our congregations have shown great compassion around refugees, and I think that will continue.”

-- American Baptist News Service contributed to this report.