CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 15 June 2019

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A glimpse at xenophobia and populism in Asia

VATICAN (AsiaNews): A symposium on Xenophobia and Populism promoted by the World Council of Churches and the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was opened on December 13 by Peter Cardinal Turkson and Pastor Olav Fykse Tveit, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches.
The symposium highlighted the extent of the problems related to migration and multi-ethnic coexistence, the ever increasing hostility towards those considered enemies and foreigners, and concern within the Church that xenophobia is spreading among Christians.
The symposium is a forerunner to a worldwide conference on the same theme scheduled from May 21 to 24 next year.
Speakers highlighted the political weight of what was termed the migrant issue. Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, from the Bavarian Lutheran Church, outlined how the reception of refugees in Germany in 2015 became an opportunity for solidarity, but also saw a swing towards populism and isolation.
The Reverend Peter Colwell, from the United Churches of Great Britain, spoke of fear of migrants as fuelling the vote on Brexit, which has seen the country going into isolationist mode and leaving the European Union.
Thomas Scott, from the University of Bath, spoke of the urgent need for collaboration between the Churches and governments in addressing the issue of migration, as many countries and political authorities find themselves unprepared to deal with it.
Father Bernardo Cervellera, the editor-in-chief of AsiaNews, spoke of Asia as being a continent of the most ancient civilisations and religions, but also a continent of extremely young states.
“They were formed following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922; during the aftermath of World War II and with the dissolution of the British Empire between 1945 and 1948, and finally following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 to 1991,” he said.
He noted that as they are often derived from multiethnic empires, these young states struggle to establish a national identity and maintain internal cohesion, so they compensate with flag-raising in schools, frequent singing of the national anthem, civic education with a nationalist imprint and an historical narrative presenting a struggle where national heroes triumph over the nation’s enemies.
“This has led their people to view the old colonial powers, invaders, bearers of another culture or another religion with suspicion and contempt,” he said.
Father Cervellera added that he also believes that the growing nationalism is being fuelled by a failing globalisation.
“Globalisation preached a total communication throughout the world, which was seen as everybody’s shared home. This resulted in many Asian countries entering the world of production, trade and exchange, which put them in contact with distant countries and boosted domestic development to a certain extent,” he explained.
“The intense economic development of some areas of Asia has also generated an unprecedented emigration of manpower, but at a certain point globalisation plunged into a crisis. What is happening now, the xenophobia and the populism that we are reflecting on, is the fruit of the crisis of globalisation,” he suggested.
He explained that this has led to the great cities and metropolises becoming a series of ghettos divided by geographical and cultural origin and any vague idea of equality that does exist is secured at the price of keeping cultural, religious and geographical identity hidden.
“So people who in the past were spurred on to move by an image of world fraternity, now find themselves poorer and robbed of meaning, used as objects and tools of the production chain, but not recognised as bearers of a greater dignity,” Father Cervellera said.
He said that he believes that a similar dynamic characterised by disillusionment in the US and Europe is fuelling a certain Islamist terrorism among young people which expresses itself in xenophobia.
Nevertheless, he says, “It is also true to say that these fundamentalist movements were fuelled by the struggle for power and influence in the region between the US and Russia, and the religious and economic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
He added that the 2007 economic crisis signalled a sunset on shared wealth and although global wealth grows every year, dividends are no longer distributed among all levels of society.
He continued by saying this is causing migrants and indigenous populations to compete with each other for jobs, for housing and the minimum of security. “This too is a cause of xenophobia,” he pointed out.
He then cited Thailand’s new labour laws, which accuse the Rohingya and people from the Union of Myanmar and Vietnam of stealing local jobs, forcing them back on the run.
The prosperous era of the 1980s and 1990s that saw Thailand looking for labour was finally killed by the military coup in 2014 and now it is blaming migrants for the current squeeze.
Father Cervellera noted that nationalism and populism are also used as a weapon against entire nations that are seen as enemies in an effort to pull populations together and dispel unwelcome economic competition.
He added that we should not just think of migration as crossing national boundaries, as both India and China have huge internal migration of about 300 million in India and over 200 million in China.
“These migrant workers suffer the same injustices experienced by immigrants in the Gulf countries, or in Europe: lack of employment contracts, slave-like working hours, no rights, poor wages, insecurity and violence,” he said.
“In China in the past, these migrants were a necessary low-cost labour force, essential for Chinese development; now due to the labour shortage caused by the crisis and the increase in automation, they are seen as a burden,” he continued.
“Now they are now being driven out of the cities and their dilapidated houses destroyed. In Beijing, tens of thousands of internal migrants were evicted at the end of November… justified by the government as cleaning the metropolis from low-class population.”
So what can Christians in Asia do, especially since they are tiny minorities and often persecuted and marginalised?
Father Cervellera isolated involvement in politics as essential, especially in the area of demanding a secular, non-confessional state, which leaves room for every religion and defends religious freedom so that every community can contribute freely to the construction of society.
He added that Churches also need to address the scepticism that exists over the capacity of states to respond to people’s needs. He noted that in this area Churches are giving a strong witness in committing themselves to helping people to survive and defending migrants and offering a welcome.
The third factor that Father Cervellera sees as vital is education in coexistence with other cultures and religions, welcoming, dialoguing, learning and assimilating each other’s values.
He concluded his input by saying that this was clearly visible in the programme proposed by Pope Francis to Christians in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and especially to the young people of both nations.

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