Churches in Europe have a crucial role to play in responding to the arrival of refugees in Europe, Germany's interior minister has told a gathering in Geneva of governments, United Nations agencies, church and faith groups and civil society organizations.
Managing the global refugee crisis is not the task of government policy makers alone," Dr Thomas de Maizière, the German interior minister, said in an 18 January keynote address on the first day of a two-day High-Level Conference on the refugee crisis and Europe.
More than a million people have made a hazardous sea journey to Europe over the past year, with more arriving by land. The majority are fleeing conflict, violence and persecution, especially in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. At least 3700 are reported to have died on the sea crossing.
At the same time, the number of Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan far exceeds those who have sought to reach Europe.
"The extraordinary political, social and humanitarian challenges raised by the refugee crisis show that government, civil society, business and also churches have a shared responsibility," de Maizière, an active Protestant, said in his address to the gathering.
"As the backbone of civil society, church congregations are often the ones providing assistance," he said. "And yet even more is needed."
The conference at Geneva's Ecumenical Centre has been organized by the World Council of Churches (WCC) in cooperation with UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund; UNFPA, the UN Population Fund; and UNHCR, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
It aims to arrive at commitments to strengthen coordinated responses to the crisis, including the implementation of migration and integration policies, and the creation of adequate mechanisms for orderly and safe refugee movements across Europe.
In a wide-ranging speech, de Maizière said it was urgent to arrive at shared European Union solutions for dealing with refugees and to overhaul "dysfunctional" EU asylum procedures. Only a few EU member states, particularly Germany, are taking in the great majority of refugees arriving in Europe, he stated, "while other member states are looking on."
At the same time, de Maizière insisted that European countries do not have unlimited resources to take in refugees and migrants from other parts of the world and urged coordinated measures to strengthen the external borders of the European Union.
In a response to the interior minister's speech, Archbishop Antje Jackelén of the Church of Sweden cautioned against the main message appearing to become the need to control the flow of refugees, saying this could have counter-productive effects on public opinion.
She warned of the growth of xenophobia and Islamophobia, saying that churches needed to combat "the instrumentalization of the Christian faith to legitimize the hate of Islam."
The high-level meeting aims to address the challenges in the countries of origin and transit as well as the countries where people have sought reception and refuge.
Welcoming de Maizière to the Ecumenical Centre, WCC general secretary, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, underlined the need for a political peace process for Syria and other countries, "or we will never be able to address the situations we are dealing with today."
Tveit described the situation as a crisis not only for the refugees who have arrived in Europe but also in how Europe is handling the situation. "We can also say it is a challenge that challenges the soul of Europe," Tveit stated.