Austria, Bulgaria, Switzerland: The Refugee Crisis in Europe

A large portion of my summer research has been devoted to travel. While based out of Vienna, I traveled to Sofia, Bulgaria to represent the United States and Austria at the European Baptist Federation’s Annual Missions Commission Meeting. Much of the refugee work and integration programs that are being implemented across Europe are sponsored by Christian mission organizations and humanitarian community groups. For most of Europe, but especially in Eastern Europe, member states of the European Union do not always have ample resources to care for those refugees who enter their borders for asylum. During my time in Sofia, I was able to work specifically with people from all over Europe who are in the process of implementing programs that are specifically designed to meet the needs of Christian refugees.

During my time researching in Vienna, I have found common trends in the personal theologies and narratives of refugees who are leaving their countries of origin because of religious persecution. First and foremost, refugees wish to live in community. When refugees flee to Europe, they abandon their former way of life—including family and friends. When developing models for integration, community activities and shared gatherings are important in making Europe feel more like home. Secondly, refugees wish to pray for one another. In Islam, intercessory prayers for others is strictly prohibited. But in Christianity, prayers for fellow believers are encouraged. Being able to pray as individuals and as a group brings refugees together into fellowship. Finally, refugees need more than just their physical needs met. Refugees need long term support during their asylum and integration process. And this is the most challenging aspect for Christian churches vis-à-vis the refugee crisis; how does the church meet the long standing needs of refugees? While these three theological examples are simplistic, Christian congregations are struggling to find a way of meeting refugees in their time of need, which means that refugees are left to fall through the cracks of society once again.

Whilst in Sofia, I took particular interest in discussing refugee migration and integration with representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen an increasing number of refugees because other European countries are beginning to close their borders. The struggle for pastors and theologians in Bosnia and Herzegovina is to accommodate Muslim refugees in a country that has seen more than its fair share of political and religious upheaval. The conversion from Islam to Christianity is not an easy one. Theologically, the differences between the two religions makes the theology of refugees nuanced and challenging for those who wish to serve refugee groups. While I can give no definite course of action for how to best integrate newly converted Christians into the society of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I offered community, prayer, and pastoral support as ways of holistically meeting the needs of refugees who arrive in local congregations.

Sofia, Bulgaria is a beautiful city filed with many wonderful people. I found the rich history of Christianity—in its many forms—to be inspiring. As Religious Studies major, I feel most at home in the cathedrals of the world. And to be in a city named after wisdom itself, I felt that my summer studies were finally becoming “real.” I was for the first time able to see large trends in refugee policy and Christian integration that are developing because of crisis. For the first time, I was able to converse with people from all over Europe who are equally dedicated to ensuring that refugees are lawfully protected and that their fundamental rights to safety and freedom of religion are preserved.

This past week, I had the profound opportunity of traveling to Zürich, Switzerland to present some of my summer research at the Baptist World Alliance’s Annual Conference. I was asked by the chair of the Mission Commission of the Baptist World Alliance to present the political, social, and theological trends that are present in European refugee groups. I composed a paper and presentation that introduces that upheaval that occurred in the Middle East with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, followed by a sketch of the enforcement of Shi’a law in Iran. I then delved into the forms of religious persecution that occur within Iran because of Christian conversion. I then guiIMG_3259ded the conversation into discussing why Christians cannot remain in countries where religious persecution threatens the life of a believer.  Appropriately, I then introduced seminal documents of the European Union that protect refugees from being refouled to their countries of origin because of their religious identity. To conclude, I introduced components of my original research pertinent to how refugees perceive of their own Christian faith. This portion included creating a community that feels like family, forgiveness of prior injustices, and the ability to hope in Christ for a future. My paper, entitled “Responding to the Refugee Crisis with a Mission Mindset,” will be published by the BWA in their annual report later this year. It was encouraging to see that my research about refugees was so well received by those in attendance.

I will spend the remainder of the month in Vienna, Austria. I will continue to conduct interviews with refuges and carry on conversations with those who are doing integration work here. My summer research has truly become an international academic adventure!


  1. cmwilson01 says:

    Hello Kathryn! You may remember me from Gooch Hall freshman year; I have been away in St Andrews for the past two years, but I will be back at W&M this year. Hopefully, I will see you around! Your research experience sounds amazing so far. Your topic is so important and applicable right now. It is good to see that you have been able to integrate real service in refugee integration as well as public discussion about issues related to integration and community-building into your research. A good friend of mine who studies human geography is currently doing graduate work at the University of St Andrews on refugees’ perception and experience of national borders focusing mainly on the Scandinavian countries. He is also a strong Christian, so I am sure he would be interested in your project. I would be happy to put you in touch with him if you want to exchange any ideas or resources. Wishing you all the best with your continuing research! -Colleen

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