Conference Report Refugees and Religion

3 October, 2018

Conference held at Utrecht University, 27 and 28 September 2018
Organizers: Birgit Meyer (UU) and Peter van der Veer (MPI)

Conference Report by Peter van der Veer
As part of a collaborative program between Religious Studies at Utrecht University and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen Birgit Meyer (UU) and Peter van der Veer (MPI) have organized a conference on the theme of ‚Refugees and Religion‘. The conference had 20 pre-circulated papers dealing with a variety of contemporary and historical issues. Participants came from universities in the USA, Canada, Lebanon, Britain, Italy, India, Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and Germany

It was agreed upon that the concept of ‘refugee’ should be not essentialized with a hard and fast definition, since the boundaries between ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are variable and depend on political processes. Moreover, there is the problem of time: are children of refugees still refugees? Similarly. The concept of ‘religion’ was productively approached from different perspectives, including religious experience of suffering, religious self-organization, and religious asylum. It became clear from a number of contributions how far going the transformation of religion, for example in the use of textual traditions, can be when people have fled their homeland.

The conference started with historical papers on religious and political conflicts and the refugee waves they created in early modern Europe and in 20th century Germany and Vietnam. The history of European societies that today are receiving refugees was examined in relation to their own history of producing and receiving refugees. The flight for communism in Europe and Vietnam turned out to have some features in common. A second historical angle that was explored was the history of decolonization in Vietnam, India, and Bangladesh.  This history proved of great significance for understanding the current situation of Rohingyas in Bangladesh, for Muslims in Assam, and for Catholic Vietnamese in the USA and Europe.

Many papers showed the contradictions of the nation-state as a political entity that is both the subject and the object of ethnic and religious cleansing as well as the supposed receiver and guarantor of human rights of refugees. A contribution of the conference was to show that religious organizations could escape somewhat from the constraints of the nation-state and perform ethical functions that are grudgingly permitted by the state. These organizations address with varying success the far-going arbitrariness of the judicial process, especially concerning religious conversion in the context of asylum.

The variety of ethnographic and historical cases of refugees (in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and the USA) presented at the conference allowed for a wider understanding of divergent historical pathways and thus for a more comparative understanding of the processes involved. In all these cases religion, both as the cause of conflict and as contributing to solutions, was shown to be of crucial importance. The organizers plan to edit a volume from the conference.