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Religion Is Key to Europe’s Identity Crisis Over Refugees

The arrival of significant numbers of refugees in 2015 caused a European crisis of identity, including over religion, says German theologian Ulrich Schmiedel. He explains how Christianity became the motive to “save Europe” for both those for and against refugees.

Written by Ulrich Schmiedel Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
A Syrian refugee at the head of a Good Friday procession in Berlin in 2016.Snapshot-photography/ullstein bild via Getty Images

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in September 2015 that Germany would welcome Syrian refugees, she rapidly and radically raised the temperature of public debate over refugees both inside and outside Germany. Her stance called for a strong and striking decision: Either refugees are welcomed in Europe or they are not. There was no middle ground.

Since then, the number of migrants who have made it onto the beaches and over the borders of Europe has decreased. Media attention has moved on. What remains, however, is Europe’s concurrent identity crisis. Focus has shifted from the refugees’ crisis migration to the receivers’ migration crisis.

Religion plays a significant but little-understood role in this identity crisis. As Europe grappled with issues of migration, religion was interpreted and instrumentalized as a marker to distinguish European from non-European identity. For many, Europe was construed as “Christian,” while non-Europe was construed as “non-Christian” and identified with Islam.

Already in 18th- and 19th-century Romanticism, poets and philosophers assumed that the identity of Europe should be Christian. Today, this assumption has been revived because Christianity is seen as a religion that is capable of coexisting with European secularism. While theories of secularization – which expect religion to lose social significance and be confined to the private rather than the public sphere – have been under critique for some time, the simplified idea that Christianity can be secular and that secularity can be Christian persists in public debate. Why? Because it allows for the construction of Islam as the “other.”

But Christianity’s role in the refugee crisis is far from straightforward. On all sides of the political spectrum, Christianity is referenced as a motivation to save the identity of Europe – either by advocating or by attacking humanitarian policies of open borders. These are the two opposite extremes of Christianity’s response to the refugee crisis: The one with a theology that stresses the necessity of belonging (where defending Christian culture is more important than faith) and the other with a theology that stresses the necessity of believing (where faith is more important than defending Christian culture). Both were highly visible following Merkel’s 2015 announcement.

On the one hand, migrants were greeted with applause as they arrived on platforms 11, 12 and 13 of Munich’s main station. Refugee relief organizations in Munich received so many donations that the police had to issue appeals for donors to stop. Both religious and non-religious organizations played a significant role, but the two mainline churches in Germany – Protestant and Catholic – were particularly prominent. Their respective representatives, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm and Archbishop Reinhard Marx, were among the first who welcomed the migrants at the station, emphasizing that care for the other is central to Christianity. Here, Christianity was interpreted as a religion that should welcome the other.

On the other hand, a movement called Pegida (the German acronym of ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West’) protested to defend Europe against what they perceived as “Islamization.” What started as small and scattered protests in the German city of Dresden soon had spin-offs inside and outside Germany. In Dresden, Pegida protesters carried a large illuminated cross, painted in the colors of the German flag, to show their stance on the Christian soul of Europe. Here, Christianity was interpreted as a religion that should not welcome the other. Instead, the protesters identified all migrants with Muslims and all Muslims with migrants, who they saw as a threat to the Christian culture of Europe.

These theologies of belonging and believing are two polar extremes. Most Christian responses are located along a continuum between the two and display elements of both, sometimes in contradictory and sometimes in complementary ways. The Catholic Church in Europe is a case in point: Pope Francis has repeatedly called for Europeans to take responsibility for migrants, but not all clergy in the Catholic Church agree with their Pope. What the conflict within the Catholic Church shows is that Christianity cannot be nicely and neatly identified with either belonging or believing. Christianity remains betwixt and between.

Theologies, then, inform public debates over the fortification or defortification of Europe as a response to increased immigration. Such critical questions about the future of Europe cannot be addressed without taking these theologies seriously.

Taking theologies seriously, however, could leave analysts and activists in an uncomfortable position because they have to tackle theologies in the plural – Christianities, rather than Christianity, with competing and conflicting claims about identity and immigration. But such discomfort might provide a promising point of departure to extract, rather than import or impose, principles and practices from Christianity for turning “Fortress Europe” into a home.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply. Ulrich Schmiedel is coeditor of Religion in the European Refugee Crisis,” which was recently published by Palgrave MacMillan.


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