12/15/2017, 11.43
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Xenophobia and populism. The case of Asia

by Bernardo Cervellera

Theme studied during symposium jointly organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and by the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development. Tracing the commitment of Churches amid rising hostility towards others, considered as enemies and foreigners. "Migrants" are an important political theme in Germany and in UK Brexit. Testimonies from Latin America and Africa. Asian experiences entrusted to the director of AsiaNews.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - A symposium on "Xenophobia and populism" promoted by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and by the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development, in collaboration with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Opening the session on December 13, Card. Peter K.A. Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery, and pastor Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the WCC, highlighted the extent of the problems related to migration and multi-ethnic coexistence, the ever increasing hostility towards others considered as enemies and foreigners, the commitment of Churches in this regard, concerned that xenophobia may spread even among Christians.

The aim of the meeting is to prepare the ground for a world conference on the same theme, scheduled from May 21 to 24, 2018.

Among the invited experts, who were given 15 minutes for their intervention, several highlighted the political weight of the "migrant" issue, such as bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm of the Bavarian Lutheran Church. He outlined how among the people of Germany, the reception of refugees - especially Syrians - in 2015 became an opportunity for solidarity, but also an element that caused the electorate to veer to the extreme right. The Rev. Peter Colwell of the United Churches of Great Britain revealed how the Brexit decision was fueled by fear of migrants.

Other interventions, such as Prof. Thomas Scott, of the University of Bath (UK), stressed the urgent need for collaboration between the Churches and governments in addressing the issue of migration, on which many countries and political authorities find themselves unprepared.

Among the guests invited to speak, there have been scholars from Latin America and Africa. The only one invited to talk about Asia was the director of AsiaNews, Fr. Bernardo Cervellera. Below his intervention.

Asia is known as the continent with the most ancient civilizations and religions. But it is also the continent with very young states. They were formed following the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1922); in the aftermath of the Second World War and with the dissolution of the British Empire (1945-1948) and following the fall of the Soviet Union (1990-91). Often derived from multiethnic empires, these young states have had to strengthen their nationalist emphasis to maintain internal cohesion (flag-raising in schools, national anthem sung everywhere, civic education with a nationalist imprint, history narrated as a struggle between national heroes and enemies).
This has led their people to view the old colonial powers, invaders, bearers of another culture or another religion with suspicion and contempt.
Nationalism is still present today in many - perhaps in all - Asian states, indeed it can be said that it is growing. This is due to another factor: globalization and its failure.
In the beginning, globalization 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, exchange, which put them in contact with distant countries and boosted domestic development to a certain extent. The intense economic development of some areas of Asia (the Gulf countries, Japan, the little dragons [South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan] , the Great dragon [China], India) has also generated an unprecedented emigration of manpower. But at a certain point globalization plunged into a crisis. What is happening now, the xenophobia and the populism that we are reflecting on, are the fruit of the crisis of globalization.

This crisis is twofold:

            1) globalization fostered the exchange of goods, labor, money, information, all measurable elements, part of a rationalistic and mathematical world. But dialogue and the exchange of cultural, religious and human elements were never facilitated or supported. All of the great cities and metropolises have become a series of ghettos divided according to people’s geographical and cultural origin and if there is a vague idea of ​​equality it is obtained at the price of keeping one’s cultural, religious and geographical identity hidden in the private sphere. 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 in the production chain, but not recognized as bearers of a greater dignity. A certain Islamist terrorism among the young - especially in Europe and the USA - stems from this disillusionment and is an active and passive cause of xenophobia.
But even the terrorism of ISIS which caused millions of Syrian and Iraqi Christians to flee, along with millions of Muslims, justified its war with the destruction of the world and colonial borders (Sykes - Picot).             It is also true to say that these fundamentalist movements were fueled by the struggle for power and influence in the region between the United States and Russia and the religious and economic competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

            2) the latest economic crisis, that of 2007 to date, reveals that the sun has set on the idea of a shared wealth. Although global wealth grows every year, dividends are no longer distributed among all levels of society. Rather they remain in the hands of a few and in the service of financial powers, and now migrants and indigenous populations have to compete with each other for jobs, for housing, for a minimum of security. This too is a cause of xenophobia, in which the other, the migrant, is accused of wanting to steal work and welfare from the local population.

For example: since June last year, hundreds of thousands of Burmese – also Rohingya - and Vietnamese have had to leave Thailand because of new, very strict labor laws. This is due to the fact that many Thais have complained and accused migrant workers from neighboring countries of "stealing work" from Thai citizens. Bangkok began attracting workers from neighboring countries and the Mekong delta in the 1980s and 1990s, when its GDP grew by 7% a year. But with the economic crisis and the 2014 coup, which brought the military junta to power, the Thai economy is struggling to restart. In 2014, growth stood at 0.7%, then rose to 2.8% in 2015 and to 3% in 2016.

It is important to point out that nationalism and populism are used as a weapon not just against migrants and refugees, but also against entire nations seen as enemies. In this case, nationalism is still a tool to draw the nation together under political powers - especially when they are not very stable - and to dispel unwelcome economic competition. Such is the case of Chinese nationalism against Korean or Japanese goods, which also leads to cases of violence; or Hindu nationalism in India that would curb foreign investment in the country. Christian communities are often victims of such nationalism, both in China and in India, as they are seen as the outposts of a foreign colonial army.

And speaking of India and China, it is worth pointing out that in these countries there is also a 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, violence. In China, in the past these migrants were a necessary low-cost labor force, essential for Chinese development; now due to the labor shortage caused by the crisis and the increase in automation, they are seen as a burden. 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, without any prior warning or compensation. Everything is justified by the government as "cleaning the metropolis from low-class population (diduan renkou)".

Faced with these challenges, what can Christians in Asia do, given that they are tiny minorities that are often persecuted and marginalized?
They are committed at different levels:

            a) with political power and in society they demand 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. A secular state guarantees that every member of any religion is recognized as a full citizen, with the same rights and duties. This is the track that Christians are following in the Middle East, in Pakistan, in India, etc ... It is important that the State is not seen as a god, but at the service of the citizens, that power not be held by one man or group (see China, Vietnam, Laos and Central Asia);

            b) With a certain skepticism about the capacities of States to respond to needs, the Church and local churches are committing themselves to helping populations survive, to the defense of migrants and their reception. There are good experiences in India, with twinning of rich and poor dioceses to help migrants, tribals who arrive in big cities so that they are not trapped by traffickers, but are welcomed as brothers and sisters (see Mumbai and Ranchi).  I also find what Metropolitan Ilarion, of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow, said in recent days very important, when he spoke about the commitment of Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican Churches for the return of Christian refugees to Syria and Iraq.

            c) Educating to coexistence with other cultures and religions, welcoming, dialoguing, learning, assimilating each other values. This was clearly visible in the program proposed by Pope Francis to Christians in Myanmar and Bangladesh and especially to the young people of both nations.


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