Statelessness presents many legal, social and political challenges, and within it is a theological dilemma that demands attention. It is a tragically overlooked dimension of the displacement crisis occurring in our world today.
It’s estimated that there are more than 15 million stateless individuals in the world today, including over 4 million stateless Palestinians. Individuals can become stateless when states discriminate against particular people groups by denying nationality, when gender discrimination in laws prevent women passing citizenship, or when births and marriages are unregistered. The greatest cause of statelessness, however, is inheritance as a stateless generation gives birth to a stateless generation.
It is not difficult to grasp the implications of statelessness. We only need to think of everything we do and every experience we have that requires some form of official identification. All of these are either impossible or extremely complicated for the stateless. This includes:
- Attending school and university
- Gaining legal employment
- Travelling across and within borders
- Accessing health care
- Renting, owning or inheriting property
- Legally marrying and registering children
From the cradle to the grave, statelessness impacts all areas of life. In the absence of rights the stateless face heightened risk of human trafficking, sexual and labor exploitation, unlawful detention and many other human rights violations. When we look at the present day displacement crisis in the Middle East we see emerging threats of statelessness. Over 300,000 Syrian children have been born in displacement since 2011, and staggering high numbers of these births remain unregistered. These children lack proper documentation therefore their current and future legal existence is compromised. If the cases are not remedied, countless lives risk futures of statelessness. 1 Not only is statelessness a violation of international human rights, it contradicts God’s intention for creation. In scripture we read how God created places and created all people to be rooted securely in land, society, and community. It is something we call in theological terms implacement, the very idea that our humanity is tied to having a place and being rooted in where we are. This is why everyone everywhere desires to be at home somewhere in this world. Whereas humanity is made by God for implacement, sin has caused displacement, the uprooting and denial of place. Displacement effectively dehumanizes its victims and this exclusion from humanity is a paralyzing sting of state- lessness. The stateless truly live a very real type of displacement. They seemingly do not belong anywhere in this world and are often considered “nobody” people.
Though this is how the world may see the stateless, it should never be the view of the Church. She must foremost see imago dei; the truth that all stateless individuals bear God’s very image. Though they lack national status, they have a human status that entitles them to every amount of worth and value. The stateless belong to God and they certainly belong in this world. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize that political citizenship, though very important, is limited. It can never deliver promises of human wholeness and security. Our hope is in the truth declared by the Apostle Paul: “Our citizenship is in heaven.”
The greatest cause of statelessness, however, is inheritance as a stateless generation gives birth to a stateless generation.
Knowing that true belonging, true citizenship, is found only in God’s heavenly kingdom is good news to all, but how much more of a comfort
it is to those who will pass through this world knowing no other citizenship than their heavenly citizenship. Stateless followers of Christ have insight into this mystery of the kingdom in ways that “citizens” do not, and the Church would do well to listen to the prophetic voices of the stateless.
The Church needs to embark on a ministry of citizenship that recognizes the full picture of citizenship. If one gains an earthly citizenship but has not heavenly citizenship, then one has gained very little. Yet if one gains heavenly citizenship but has not an earthly citizenship then one misses out on much. The Church must therefore be concerned with the two hands of citizenship: membership in our global political community and membership in God’s kingdom. It is essentially a dual citizenship, citizens of earth and citizens of heaven, and it is the cry of millions around the world.
Brent Hamoud is one of the first four graduates from the Master of Religion in Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon. Brent, an American who grew up in Minnesota, has spent the last nine years living in Lebanon and serving at Dar el Awlad (Kids Alive Lebanon), a ministry that serves at-risk children. Brent’s father comes from a Bedouin tribe that spans territories in Lebanon and Syria, and spent part of his childhood at the boys’ home where Brent now serves. For more reflections visit his blog nostatelessamongyou.wordpress.com
*For more information about this urgent crisis see the 2016 report by the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion and the Norwegian Refugee Council entitled “Understanding Statelessness in the Syrian Refugee Context