Churches responses to immigration, asylum and racism

Research on church responses

Many churches have responded to the challenge of increased migration and diversity with warmth and imagination, but a 2009 survey of faith leaders and laity in Ireland, by Dr Gladys Glaniel of the Irish School of Ecumenics, reveals that such actions are patchy. The northern responses reveal that

  • 62% of lay people stated that there are immigrants or minority-ethnic people in their congregations.
  • 55% of clergy and faith leaders say that they have preached or taught on immigration, diversity or welcoming strangers in the last 12 months.
  • 44% of clergy, pastors, ministers, and faith leaders have never done anything to accommodate minority-ethnic people.
  • 19% said that the languages of minority-ethnic people had been used in services during the last 12 months. (This was more common under the heading ‘Other Christians’ which may well include migrant-led churches.)

‘We … asked clergy to provide examples of what they had done, that was out of the ordinary, to accommodate ethnic minorities. Examples included assisting with asylum claims/tribunal hearings, financial support for accommodation, education, transportation or other needs, assistance in finding jobs, translation of bibles, sermons, or other reading materials, providing English language classes, conducting open air religious services in areas where ethnic minorities live, visiting Chinese takeaways with religious materials, organising cultural evenings in which people share food and customs from their native lands; inviting ethnic minorities to take part in St Patrick’s Day celebrations; visiting their homes; organizing special welcoming committees or parish groups; encouraging prayer during worship services in native languages; using the music and dance from immigrants’ home countries in religious services; helping children settle into schools; use of church buildings, halls and car parks; and including special sections for newcomers on congregational websites. Some clergy remarked that such activities should not be considered out of the ordinary – for them, these were the ‘ordinary’ works of charity with which Christians should be engaged.’

Extract from the clergy leader survey.

Clergy were asked about how they had preached and taught about immigration, diversity and welcoming strangers and some included the practical difficulties facing people. These are some of the northern responses.

‘Preached about justice in and outside the workplace, especially with rents and accommodation.’

On the other hand, some leaders reported that their preaching focus came partly because of resistance in their congregations to making special accommodation for minority-ethnic people.

‘Matthew 25 (welcoming the stranger) is very important to me, especially as one of my churches has a habit of getting rid of strangers.’

Others regretted their own shortcomings.

‘I cannot minister very effectively – can only smile, and speak & pray in English.’

The lay survey also revealed a mixture of responses. Here are two contrasting contributions from Belfast:

‘Immigrants give us a global perspective on our faith and remind the church of our underlying unity in Christ. … A church composed of such people is a foretaste of heaven which will consist of people of every race, tribe and language.’

‘The most challenging aspect of ethnic minorities is to keep all of them equally cared for and happy. All tend to have slight variations on practices such as prostrations and bowing or kneeling … however our priest states repeatedly that there is no need to conform to Antiochhian practices and that it is equally acceptable to stand or to kneel if this is what people are used to.’


Positive experiences

While some newcomers have had negative experiences in local churches others have found unconditional welcome.

‘I have been living in Northern Ireland for almost 10 years now. In 2004 when European Union was enlarged, Irish Catholics were confronted by a large influx of Polish Catholics and you were all very welcoming. I represent a parish which is integrating very well, parish of St Anthony’s in East Belfast which is integrating Polish people … Our parish is actually growing not only by Polish people who joined the parish in large numbers … but also by local people who are coming back to the church. … You certainly still understand what does it mean “Love one another”.’

A Polish doctor speaking in a discussion on the future of the Catholic Church,
on Sunday Sequence, Radio Ulster, 21 February, 2010.

‘When you get into problems you get a label and people looked at me as that label instead of an individual. I was labelled as an illegal immigrant and as such they didn’t want to know. However, Christians look at the person themselves and want to help them as an individual. When I got out [of prison] I had no job, no place, nothing. Christians are the only people who will help you out of these situations. They fight for our human rights as a person and embrace you as a person. How many people have strangers in their homes when they don’t know anything about them? They took that risk when they took me in – they didn’t know me – that is being a Christian.’

Mavis Henry, a South African nurse now living in Belfast, talking about her experience following imprisonment while her papers were sorted out.


Denominational responses
The Churches in Ireland have responded in different ways. Every Catholic diocese in Ireland has a priest in charge of the pastoral care of migrants. As well as priests who have served abroad, there are also chaplains from several of the main countries of origin of migrants who ensure liturgical celebrations and pastoral care for different language groups. The Church also used to have a Refugee and Migrant Project centred in Maynooth. This was replaced by the Irish Episcopal Council for Immigrants (IECI), which was formed in 2009 in order to develop and foster initiatives in relation to outreach and pastoral care of immigrants. Its Field Officer is Dr Helen Young.

A resource pack was made available to parishes to help them celebrate World Migrant and Refugee Day, 20 January, 2013. The theme was Migrations: Pilgrimage of Faith and Hope.  (In the light of increased numbers of people leaving Ireland the Irish Episcopal Council for Emigrants (IECE) also produced an Emigrant Information Pack 2012 to assist parishes and dioceses in raising awareness about the issues affecting emigrants and to ask for the prayers and support of parishioners.) For Christmas 2013 and for World Migrant and Refugee Day on 19 January 2014 a further resource pack was prepared with prayers, homily notes and suggested parish activities. For a full list of IECE migration resources see their website.

In February 2014 the Council for Emigrants (IECE) joined with the Council for Immigrants (IECI) to organise a conference, Journeying Together – Challenges Facing the Migrant Today, to explore both emigration and immigration and offer a platform to discuss the effects of migration on undocumented people, families, prisoners and victims of trafficking. The conference speeches are available online.

Among other issues, the NI Catholic Council on Social Affairs (NICCOSA) is concerned about the increasing amount of poverty and human trafficking and St Vincent de Paul continues to play a valuable role in helping people throughout local communities who find themselves affected by poverty, including destitute foreign nationals. Extra money has been set aside in the South Belfast area to support the special needs of refugees and people who are seeking asylum, as many people in the asylum system live in the south of the city.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) adopted a document, Policy on Asylum Seekers and Refugees; a Report by the Race Relations Committee to the 2003 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. It explores issues of asylum, immigration, racism and welcome. The responsibility in this area lies with a Race Relations Panel.

Keith Preston, an Irish Mission worker for the PCI Board of Mission in Ireland working in South and East Belfast, opened a successful drop-in centre, the International Meeting Point for migrant people on the Lisburn Road, Belfast. It serves people from many countries and has upwards of 60 volunteers from 15 churches. Details of the activities are on Facebook.

The ‘and You welcomed Me’ DVD was produced in 2013 and is an important resource from the Presbyterian Church’s Race Relations Panel. It features first hand stories of people from Lithuania, Russia, Malaysia, The Philippines, India, Nigeria and South Africa, and reflects on what it means to be welcomed and accepted into congregational life. The accompanying resource includes Bible study material, suggestions for engagement and sources of further information. Copies are available from Rev. Richard Kerr (Email: for the nominal price of £5.

The Methodist Church in Ireland adopted the Presbyterian policy document and addresses the issues through their Council on Social Responsibility. The Reconciliation Programme at Edgehill Theological College which closed in 2014 was in partnership with EMBRACE. The Programme had a specific focus on integration and hosted EMBRACE Committee meetings and AGMs, as well as co-ordinating the EMBRACE On the Street project. Their web page has resources relating to welcome, hospitality and immigration and the Bible.

With the support of the Reconciliation Programme in Edgehill College and the Home Mission Department, a one-day conference  was organised in Portlaoise in October 2012, to address the question ‘What’s next for multi-ethnic churches?’

The Church of Ireland three-year Hard Gospel project (2005–2008) aimed to improve the ways in which the church deals with difference, at all levels, including the challenge of immigration and ethnic difference. A course on Loving our Neighbours was distributed to all rectors and included a session on ‘Welcoming the Stranger’. In 2007–08 diocesan consultations culminated in an all-Ireland ‘Pilgrim People’ conference on immigration in January 2008. Some dioceses planned welcome strategies and appointed advisers on diversity and migration. Embracing Difference: the Church of Ireland in a Plural Society by Patrick Comerford was published in 2007 under the auspices of the Society and Justice Theology (Republic of Ireland) Group of the Church in Society Committee.

Numbers of people from world faiths other than Christianity have increased, especially in the Republic of Ireland. The Church of Ireland set up an Inter Faith Working Group, which held a series of workshops in different venues in 2012–13. The one in Belfast focused on ‘Education for Understanding’. The Church of Ireland had already produced Guidelines for Interfaith Events.

The Presbyterian, Methodist, Church of Ireland and Catholic Churches and Belfast City Vineyard Church have contributed money over a three-year period towards an EMBRACE development worker and administrative work. This funding, plus a grant from the OFMDFM Minority Ethnic Development Fund, has enabled the employment of Aneta Dabek as development worker with the churches.

Quakers raise awareness among their members through workshops, seminars and regular exchange of information. They also work closely with other churches and faiths. With the co-operation of the NI Prison Service, Quaker Service has a volunteer programme, Quaker Connections, to provide visits to isolated individuals in Maghaberry Prison, including visits to foreign nationals who often have no friends or family within reach. It is hoped that this service may be extended to other sites in the future. Volunteers from are also available at Maghaberry to provide support to family and friends coming to visit their loved ones in prison.

Christian groups such as Evangelical Alliance have worked to raise consciousness around social justice issues. They produced a briefing advice booklet, Alltogether for Asylum Justice: Asylum Seekers’ Conversion to Christianity, which examines how persecuted Christians and Christian converts are treated in the UK asylum system. Evangelical Alliance also initiated the important Don’t Be A Stranger campaign in 2008, to challenge and inspire Christians by showcasing the stories of migrants who have come to the UK and those who are working to make them feel welcome. In January 2009 Evangelical Alliance facilitated The ‘World on our Doorstep’ (WOOD) event, with Mission Agencies Partnership (MAP), which aimed to educate and empower Christians to reach out to the ever-growing numbers of minority-ethnic people coming here. MAP ran two further WOOD events. In February 2011 their keynote speaker, Dick Dowsett, warned of the danger of mono-cultural churches ‘where everyone thinks like me and I can understand them all’, an attitude that runs counter to the internationalism of the early Church.

The Corrymeela Community continues to provide annual holiday breaks for refugees and people seeking asylum.

Across the denominations, congregations, inter-church forums, parish and community projects, individuals and specialist groups continue to be involved in a range of activities from diversity training, language teaching, conversation classes and parent and toddler groups, to Bible study and drop-in centres. It would be helpful if a mapping exercise could identify all these activities so that people could be inspired by examples of good practice.

Inter-Church Groups
Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) provides a forum for joint decision-making, and enables the Churches to take action together. Their website includes a number of publications on migration, asylum and human trafficking.

The All-Ireland Churches Consultative on Racism (AICCMR) was set up in 2003 to ‘provide an all-island focus and vision’ to complement the work of other Christian agencies in the field. A major conference Challenged by Difference: Threat or Enrichment was set up in November 2005. Initiatives such as this two-day conference, as well as Taste and See, an inter-church, inter-cultural worship/prayer celebration held in Dublin and Belfast, gave an opportunity to explore new inter-church connections through input, dialogue and informal conversation. AICCMR publications include Inter-Cultural Insights: Christian Reflections on Racism, Hospitality and Identity from the Island of Ireland edited by Scott Boldt. Their Directory of Migrant-led Churches and Chaplaincies documented over 360 new faith communities and is now available online. Recognising the key role of Scripture in exploring the Christian response to the presence of newcomers, AICCMR also produced a revised and expanded edition of What the Bible Says about the Stranger. In 2012 the work of AICCMR came to an end.

The Parish-Based Integration Project (PIP) ran between 2007–10 to assist Churches with the practical integration of immigrants in parishes and congregations. They published Unity and Diversity in Our Churches. PIP Integration Officer, Adrian Cristea had a major role in the development of the Affirmations on Migration Diversity and Interculturalism.

The Irish Churches Peace Project (ICPP) ran from September 2013 to June 2015. It was a partnership between the Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland and Methodist Churches and the Irish Council of Churches, with the vision statement ‘A peaceful and stable society, … a shared and better future’. The project sought to map existing good relations work, including that led by churches. A number of resources were generated by the project and can be accessed from the Irish Council of Churches website.