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26 April 2016

Russell Rook

Russell Rook

The Good Faith Partnership was developed after the last election, when Dr Russell Rook and some colleagues felt the Church and the state were understanding each other less, and so set out to address this concern. Russell Rook, who heads the organisation, told idea a little more about their project with refugees.

"We wanted to create a way of improving the conversation between faith and the state. Increasingly MPs are becoming more religiously illiterate and some faith leaders are becoming less politically literate. We felt that the Christian faith has a huge amount to bring – and does bring – to public life, but that sometimes that contribution is missed."

The first task was create a way for the Church to address the refugee crisis. "We were thinking of starting this new initiative for refugees and then we had a phone call from a senior politician saying we need to get cross-party politicians, NGO leaders and faith leaders together in parliament [to discuss the crisis]. This was in September. I think everyone had gone off on their holidays, were sitting on a beach, and had opened their newspapers and seen people arriving on another beach down the coast."

Suddenly, a problem that had been around for quite some time seemed to come closer. After this meeting, which Russell and his colleagues pulled together in 24 hours, a group of church leaders just kept expressing their desire for the Church to organise a major response to the crisis.

Russell explained the problems surround this: "Actually, the refugee crisis is by its nature very complex. It's not as simple as just sending some money. There are all sorts of practical things questions, like how many Syrians will come to the country? Where will they come to? What can we do? How can we do something that's well thought through to avoid making mistakes and damaging people who have already been very damaged?

"We decided to try to get together and do something, which we called The Church for Refugees, or For Refugees for short." The Partnership believe that some people in the UK were waiting for these 20,000 Syrians the government have authorised to live here to arrive on mass. "But it won't happen like that. It will happen over the next five years – only 1,000 have come so far." 

Until these people do arrive, many churches can't help these new refugees in their local area. 

"What people don't know is there are already more than 50,000 destitute refugees and asylum seekers in the UK right now. We would encourage churches to get in touch with us and find out what they can do." For Refugees has been working with the government on a plan to help local churches bring a family into that community and commit to help them. It's an idea that's with the home secretary right now, proving a success already in Canada.

Earlier this year, the Archbishop of Canterbury said immigration was a legitimate concern, and said people who expressed these views shouldn't be labelled as racists. With some people now equating refugees with immigration, does Russell think Christians are right to worry? "It depends. There are three groups of people, and the lines are quite blurred between them - migrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Largely it's to do with the bureaucrats deciding who belongs to which group."

He says the Syrian refugees are "not a concern, because the government is not taking migrants from Europe looking to come to the UK. These are people currently in and around refugee camps in places like Lebanon, Jordan and the Syrian border". The government has committed to taking 20,000 and the United Nations Refugee Agency will identify who are the most vulnerable. These refugees will be security checked by the UN and the UK government and taken largely to places where local authorities want to welcome refugees. "A colleague of mine was in the Isle of Bute last week," Russell said: "Where they've welcomed 50 people. Every time a family arrive there's a class from the local primary school there to welcome them on the runway. She said it's remarkable to see how much this community want them to be there."

The situation across Europe is desperate, with many countries struggling to cope with the sheer number of people fleeing their homes. Some experts are now saying we should be focussing on stabilising those places and reducing the need to flee. 

"I'd say absolutely," Russell replied. "The challenge is that somewhere like Syria is not going to be stable in the short-term, so what do you do where it's not possible? Of course everything should be done to improve the state of the nation where people are coming from but the challenge is that sometimes the problems are bigger than politicians and diplomacy from the UK can put right. "From a Christian perspective, we have to think that parts of the Church - some of the oldest parts of the Church - are being wiped out. The number of Christians facing persecution in these countries is huge. The persecution around the refugee camps is deeply, deeply worrying. We should be doing everything we can to help our brothers and sisters in need."

Prayer should of course be a huge part of our response. Russell said: "We should be praying for wars to cease, for conflict to end, for the terror of groups like IS and Al Qaida to end, because that's where this starts and ends.

"Continue to pray for the Middle East and Africa where we have these terrible regimes and hundreds of thousands of people understandably running away. "We should also be praying for our government here and in Europe. It's really challenging and we need to pray that politicians and civil servants and diplomats are brave and courageous. Pray that politicians think beyond what might get them elected and focus on their moral responsibilities.

"We also need to pray for our own churches. It's not fair to leave this in the Middle East or to blame the government for not doing enough. We need to take responsibility." 

And actually, though it's been called a "crisis", and Europe is struggling under the pressure of the number of people fleeing their home, perhaps we aren't viewing the situation in the right light. 

"It's quite clear that God's people are defined by our love for the widow, the orphan, the asylum seeker and the refugee. This is a defining issue for the Church. We need to ask God how we can live up to this title of the people of God. We need to be the family of God, to be a family who don't see these people as a problem to solve, but as part of God's family. 

"I think this current refugee crisis is God's gift to the Church, to demonstrate who we are."  


How can your church respond? Contact the Cinnamon Network to start a welcome box programme – a practical programme for any church. 

Concerned about unaccompanied minors? There are currently 1,000 in Kent alone. Contact Home for Good  to learn about fostering opportunities. 

Interested in working with young refugees? 5,000 to 10,000 Syrians coming to the UK will be young people. The Refugees Support Network is the country's leading educational mentoring charity for young refugees.

Help with housing? One of the biggest challenges. Get in touch with The Boaz Trust to help. For information about all of these groups and more, visit forrefugees.uk

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