As the number of migrants and refugees worldwide continues to surge, a panel of scholars convened last month by the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) says more must be done to deal with related religious freedom challenges.

The IRLA’s 19thMeeting of Experts, held in Cordoba, Spain, brought together renowned scholars from a variety of academic disciplines to explore this issue. But the topics discussed were anything but academic for the many millions of men, women and children who are currently on the move, fleeing poverty, violence, or religious persecution, according to IRLA Secretary General Dr. Ganoune Diop.

“Managing migration, with all its associated difficulties—physical, legal, and social—is recognized as one of the most urgent and perplexing challenges of our time,” Diop said. “But the picture is incomplete unless we also understand just how frequently religious practice and identity intersect with these issues.”

Unprecedented numbers of migrants and refugees means new religious freedom challenges, say scholars
Photo courtesy of the International Religious Liberty Association

He points out that in many world regions, from Myanmar to Nigeria to Syria and Iraq, religiously motivated hostility or violence help drive migration. But also challenging, according to Diop, are the clashes of religious and social identities that often occur later, as migrants and refugees are absorbed into new cultures.

“This process of integration raises very practical—and confronting—questions in many Western countries, such as whether to grant permits for building temples or mosques, how to relate socially and legally to those who wear religious garb, like the hijab, or even whether to allow traditional slaughtering of animals,” said Diop. “The presence and practices of religious minorities are sometimes seen as dividing wedges in society, threatening national unity and traditions.”

Scholars at the IRLA Meeting of Experts presented papers on these and other topics, including why faith-based organizations should be involved in migrant and refugee issues and how they can better collaborate. Other presenters looked at issues specific to particular world regions, such as Europe, Latin America, and North America.

The Meeting of Experts is an annual event of the IRLA, an organization chartered by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1893 and that today works around the world to promote freedom of religion or belief for all people, regardless of their religious traditions. This year’s meeting was also co-sponsored by Spain’s Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The papers presented at the Cordoba meeting will be published in next year’s Fides et Libertas, the academic journal of the IRLA.

At this year’s meeting, the IRLA paid tribute to long-time IRLA supporter and contributor Professor Alberto de la Hera. Professor de la Hera is Emeritus Professor of Canon Law and Legal History at Complutense University in Madrid and is the former Director General of Religious Affairs for Spain’s Ministry of Justice. Ambassador John Nay, president of IRLA, presented Professor de la Hera with a plaque that acknowledged his many years of scholarly work in the field of religious freedom, and his important contributions to IRLA events and activities.

Among the more than 20 scholars who presented papers at the meeting were: Silvio Ferrari, University of Milan; Cole Durham, Brigham Young University; Raimundo Barreto, Princeton University; David Little, Harvard University; Rosa Maria Martínez de Codes, Complutense University; Blandine Chellini-Pont, Aix-Marseille Université; and, Nicholas P. Miller, Andrews University.

The Meeting of Experts is held at a different location each year. Recent venues have included Harvard University and Princeton University in the United States, and next year’s Meeting of Experts will take place in Morocco.

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