Countering hate and responding with humanity – conference continues Dialogue of Friendship

European countries must find a way to respond with humanity to migrants, the Revd Bonnie Evans–Hills told a gathering in Dublin on Saturday May 25. Speaking at an event organised by the Church of Ireland Interfaith Working Group and Places of Sanctuary (faith stream), she said that there is a huge movement of people across the globe but we are all connected – “they are us” was her theme.

Bonnie, who is a priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church and was recently awarded the Hubert Walter Award for Reconciliation and Interfaith Cooperation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, pointed out that the UK pays the French government to patrol Calais and prevent migrants from crossing the Channel and has allocated millions of pounds to pay Rwanda to take asylum seekers. Europe pays Libya to prevent people crossing from Africa to Europe and to detain them. She said that private security companies benefit most from these arrangements but suggested that the money could be better spent by investing in services, integration and local communities, in the UK or Europe, rather than spending millions trying to export their refugee problem.

She pointed to Iraq where the Ayatollahs provided camps which she described as “quite good” and around which services such as medical centres grew and could be used by the whole community.

“We have to find a way of responding with some sort of humanity. If other nations can provide care, why can’t we. Or have politicians used migration as a scapegoat for their own failings?” she asked. “Climate change means more movement and it is time we take responsibility. They are us. We have to do better because if we don’t, the ones we hurt most are ourselves.”

Bonnie was speaking at Dialogue of Friendship: Countering Voices of Enmity in Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin. The event was attended by people from all over the country including Archbishop John McDowell, Archbishop Michael Jackson and Bishop Michael Burrows. They were welcomed by the Revd Andrew Dougherty, Southern District Superintendent of the Methodist Church in Ireland, who encouraged people to learn to dialogue well.

Archbishop McDowell said that the was struck by the word ‘friendship’ in the title of the event. In Ireland we tend to get stuck with toleration, he suggested, pointing out that this was a very weak civic virtue where people met along parallel lines. Friendship was much more dynamic and warmer. “This is a very strong civic virtue and it is the ballast in a pluralist society that keeps it steady… In all our traditions religious friendship is a movement of God,” he said.

Archbishop Jackson looked at the word ‘countering’ in the context of camino. He proposed three caminos: countering, collaboration and comprehension. It was timely that the Church of Ireland Interfaith Working Group had caught the direction of the wind and was offering a different, or counter, direction, he stated. He suggested that collaboration was important to deliver a strategy of response. “Enmity is a vile response to those who are other and different. Today we have the opportunity to tap into the expertise and experience of those who know their way around this field and that leads to the camino of comprehension,” he said.

Contributing to the points made by Bonnie, Dr Ali Saleem said it was high time for religious scholars to stand up for their priorities. He urged them not to be muted or marginalised. “It is not the duty of one faith. There is a need for people of different faiths to come together. It is about friendship,” he commented. “ISIS killed more Muslims [than other faiths]. They are not only your enemy, they are my enemy. They will never come here but they make me your enemy.”

The first of the good news case studies focused on Centenary Methodist Church which is a Church of Sanctuary. Since 2015 they have hosted weekly English conversation gatherings. The church has made its kitchen available to Cooking for Freedom. After Covid, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the weekly conversation classes resumed, now called Connect. They welcome Ukrainian men and women as well as other people who had come to Dublin for various reasons. More recently a number of International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) hostels have opened nearby and Connect has welcomed some residents.

Bringing news of multi–faith collaboration in Galway calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Richard Kimble and Dr Philomena McKenna spoke about how communities in Galway were coming together to respond to the war in Gaza. Richard Kimble spoke of the importance of people of different faiths working together. He said there was deep friendships across faith communities in Galway but when war broke out in Gaza it was necessary to think about justice. Dr McKenna spoke of her relationship with Palestine which started when she worked in a refugee camp for Palestinians in South Lebanon in the 1980s where she met extraordinary people, including her husband. She said she would like to see the Church being more vociferous and even the Christians of Palestine had been left on their own.

Director of the Hope and Courage Collective, Niamh McDonald, explained that their organisation supported communities in responding to hate and extremism and said that every community had a role to play in this. The far right come into communities and cause chaos, fear and hatred, she stated. “Fascism is the language of emotions – anger, disgust and fear. They ‘other’ people and use lies and disinformation to sustain the emotions. It is a tactic of the far right to build people up into frenzies and social media is not regulating this,” she commented. Their key messages focus on the housing crisis, cost of living crisis, sexual assault and violence and this targets working class areas and particularly women. They give clear soundbites.

How can communities respond? Niamh said that while the far right dominate the narrative and local people are afraid to respond, communities and organisations need to step in to build an inclusive narrative which encompasses race, class and gender. “We have conducted research on what the most persuasive narrative is. So when trusted leaders come together and use the same narrative it works well. Community leaders such as teachers, doctors, ordinary people come together to tell their own story,” she said.

“All of you are community leaders,” Niamh stated. “You have a massive role to play. You talk to people and persuade people on a daily basis. You need to go out and build your base and build it in an inclusive way.” She urged leaders to keep in communication with each other and share resources. She encouraged people to stand with those who are being othered but not to engage with the far right online. She said it was important that communities share their own positive stories and not repeat or counter the far right narrative. She also discouraged attempts to myth bust their narratives. “Myth busting reinforces stereotypes. Don’t repeat what the far right say. Use your own language. People are not persuaded by facts. They are persuaded when they see themselves as part of the narrative,” she explained.

The final panel session of the day included contributions from three Sanctuary Ambassadors. Sanctuary Ambassadors are refugees and international protection applicants who participate in a training programme to help them develop their skills in public speaking, awareness raising and advocacy in order to build bridges of understanding across Irish society.

Homayoon Shirzad, originally from Afghanistan, spoke of his role as Coordinator for Schools of Sanctuary. He spoke inspiringly about his commitment to the Places of Sanctuary ethos, and the power of sharing a message of love and compassion. Olga Rai, originally from Ukraine, has not only engaged in Sanctuary Ambassador training, but has also found work in a local school. She stressed the importance of educating children about the situation that refugees and international protection applicants are coming from and building a school culture that is welcoming and includes everyone. The final panelist was Muhammed Achour, originally from Syria whose Sanctuary connections began informally by welcoming newly arrived Syrians. He later learned about the work of Places of Sanctuary Ireland and has become involved in many different aspects.

The Revd Bonnie Hills–Evans remarked on the richness of the day’s sharing, the diversity of contributions and the openheartedness of the participants. She invited attendees into a moment of silence, closing with a ‘Celtic Rune of Hospitality’ from the ‘God with Us’ resources prepared by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Dr Veronica Crosbie, Chair of Places of Sanctuary Ireland, summarised the day, noting the importance of shaping our language so that we enhance a culture of conversation, walking together rather than dealing with others oppositionally. She also added another ‘C’ to the camino imagery that had been shared earlier in the day by Archbishop Jackson: the idea of ‘criticality’. Not ‘critical’ in the sense of being negative or destructive, but ‘critical’ in the sense of intentionally examining and seeking to understand and relate to different perspectives.

With thanks to Lynn Glanville (Communications Officer for Dublin & Glendalough) for report and photography.