Churches’ advocacy for the rights of stateless people in Europe

Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, Deputy General Secretary: Public Witness and Diakonia, at the World Council of Churches
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The World Council of Churches in collaboration with Bread for the World organised a conference with a focus on statelessness in European context on 5-6 September in Berlin, to highlight prevention, reduction and protection of stateless people in Europe. The conference was attended by 25 representatives from churches, faith based organisations, civil society and UNHCR. This was one of many regional focused conferences of the World Council of Churches with its ecumenical and other partners.

The World Council of Churches on statelessness

The World Council of Churches, founded in 1948, is a fellowship of 348 Orthodox, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, united and uniting churches, Mennonites, Friends, Congregationalists, Disciples and African Indigenous Churches in 120 countries and consisting of half a billion Christians. What binds them together is confession of the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the scriptures and therefore calling each other to visible unity which is manifested in working together in the world for justice and peace. Justice and peace have been on the WCC agenda from the beginning of its existence. The two values are connected. Justice is understood as ‘a relational concept involving structures and behaviours based on trust, solidarity and mutuality versus those relying on betrayal, oppression and exploitation. In Isaiah 32:17 it says ‘when relations among God, human beings and creation are whole, shalom (peace) prevails.’ Psalms 85:10 also echoes the connection between justice and peace when it says: ‘Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other’.

It is no wonder then that at the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Busan in 2013, member churches, other Christians, other faiths and people of good will were invited to join the pilgrimage of justice and peace. Among the priority themes of the pilgrimage of justice and peace is the issue of statelessness because it does not recognise the inherent dignity of every human being. The WCC believe that every human being bears the image of God. Statelessness mars the image of God in stateless people. It reflects injustice to the people concerned and it should be resisted. Therefore, on the pilgrimage of justice and peace, churches are called to work with people of like mindedness to be in solidarity with stateless people. Within the WCC, the work on statelessness is coordinated by the Commission of Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), who started raising awareness of the human rights of stateless people and mobilising churches to do something about it even before the WCC 10th Assembly. The churches have a unique capacity for public witness for human dignity, rights of children and adults, and for promoting accountability to human rights law. The WCC has privileged access to the UN human rights forums and accountability mechanisms in Geneva and New York. Its advocacy is grounded in theological reflection. Respect for God-given human dignity is the foundation for justice and for sustainable peace. Advocacy and action for human rights and for the elimination of statelessness is therefore an important means of travelling together on the way of justice and peace, and of demonstrating our shared ecumenical commitment to the vision of justice and peace for all.

WCC facilitates witness by its member churches and ecumenical partners for human dignity and rights, especially in international human rights forums, and to engage in the campaign for the elimination of statelessness.

Unity in finding solutions

The conference on statelessness in European context identified definite steps that can be taken to deal with statelessness in a coordinated way.

  1. Prevention of statelessness through sharing knowledge about the 1954 and 1961 UN conventions on statelessness. Churches are encouraged to check if their countries have ratified these treaties. If their countries have ratified the treaties, they are encouraged to monitor how the implementation of the treaties is happening. The churches are also invited to encourage their governments to show measurable actions on the treaties. If they have not ratified the treaties, the churches are to encourage their governments to do so. Churches are to insist that every human being should be documented and that they should benefit from the privileges that come with being a member of a particular country.
  2. Reduction of statelessness: churches are encouraged to promote birth registration with their governments. Churches are also encouraged to keep baptism records of children and adults as this information helps with keeping documentation of key aspects of stateless people’s identity. Where there are laws which make some people homeless, the churches are to lobby their law makers to change such laws so that all can have an identity.
  3. Protection of stateless people. Since churches are found in the most remote areas of the society, and have accommodated refugees and migrants in the churches and in their homes as part of their diaconal ministries, they become the first line of contact. The pilgrimage of justice and peace is the framework in which the churches respond to protect stateless people.

The urgency of the importance for churches to respond to the issue of statelessness cannot be over emphasised. There is a great need for churches, ecumenical partners and all people of good will to work together from a holistic perspective to end statelessness.


The World Council of Churches has a number of publications to assist the churches in responding to statelessness: I would like to highlight the following publications:

  1. World Council of Churches 10th assembly 2013 Statement on Human Rights of Stateless People.
  2. Human Rights of Stateless People. Report of the International Consultation towards an Ecumenical Advocacy on Rights of Stateless People, 27 February to March 2013, Washington DC.
  3. Asfaw, Semegnish. The Invisible Among Us: Hidden, Forgotten, Stateless. Geneva: world Council of Churches Publications, 2016.
  4. Asfaw, Semegnish ed. I belong: Biblical Reflections on Statelessness. Geneva: world Council of Churches Publications, 2017.