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Migration changing the face of churches

The steady increase in the movement of people around the globe is one of the main features in today’s world and is having a deep impact on churches, the main governing body of the World Council of Churches has heard.

"The Waldensian [Protestant] Church in Italy now has many more African members than Italian ones as a result of a deliberate decision by the church to welcome immigrants and to be transformed in the process," WCC general secretary the Rev. Samuel Kobia said in his report on 31 August to the 150-member central committee meeting in Geneva.

"From rural to urban areas, from poor to emerging economies in the South, from countries of the South to countries of the North – migration has become a trend impacting most societies worldwide," said Kobia, a Methodist from Kenya.

In Switzerland, he noted, churches of people of African origin had formed their own umbrella organization that is now seeking membership in the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, while the Conference of European Churches had received similar requests from Korean churches and churches of African immigrants.

Often, said Kobia, migrant churches, particularly in big cities, provided "a haven and home for the most vulnerable, offering material support, cultural space, an affirmation of identity and the opportunity for religious expression".

In some cases, the WCC general secretary noted in his report, churches arranged parallel services for migrants to allow them to worship in their own languages. A number of congregations in the United States have several worship services on Sundays in languages such as English, Spanish, Korean and Kiswahili, Kobia reported. In other cases, migrants had set up mission churches, reaching out to English-speaking communities.

Still, Kobia noted, churches which tried to open themselves to people of different ethnic origins and cultural backgrounds often found the process more difficult than anticipated.

"Migrants bring with them different theological traditions, different liturgies and different music that can enrich churches – but also may divide them," he said, citing research by the US scholar Philip Jenkins that Christian migrants from the global South tend to be more socially conservative and more evangelical than the mainline churches in the North.

"It is easier for a church to welcome migrants as long as they adapt to the traditions and policies established by the host church. This is assimilation," Kobia stated. "Integration, on the other hand, implies a willingness to accept the contributions of migrants to change the church and to create something new. This is more difficult for many to accept."

He noted that the number of international migrants had reached more than 175 million in 2005 according to the Geneva-based International Organization for Migration statistics, while an estimated 25 million have been forcibly displaced within their own countries.

"As the ‘human side’ of globalisation, the phenomenon of migration means that virtually all societies are multicultural and multi-religious," he said.

(c) Ecumenical News International