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Why Songs of Praise is visiting the migrant camp in Calais

Aaqil Ahmed

Head of BBC Religion & Ethics

Almost two weeks ago, I read about the make shift church in the Calais camp known as 'The Jungle'.

It started a conversation with the Songs of Praise team about the faith of the people who built and use the Church in the camp, what is the Christian response to the migrant issue in Calais and would it be of interest to our audience. Songs of Praise is not only about Christian music, it also explores contemporary issues and modern themes from a Christian perspective. 

Church leaders from the Pope to the Archbishop of Canterbury have talked and preached on the relevance to Christianity of the human issue of migration and asylum, and over the last few days, prominent figures from the Church of England have defended the programme.

In churches up and down the country the subject is an important one.  For centuries Christians have related to the vivid image of the Holy family becoming refugees themselves when Joseph, Mary and their baby son had to flee persecution from King Herod and escape to Egypt. The Gospels themselves are full of stories and teachings of Jesus to help those in need, to find the dispossessed and vulnerable and to love your neighbour as yourself, whether that’s close to home or in a global context. There is also another powerful concept in Christian thought that comes from the occasion when Jesus said to his followers that when two or three were gathered in his name, he would be among them. The knowledge that the migrants had built a makeshift Church is exactly the kind of action that Christian communities everywhere will relate to.

This week’s show will include two items that focus on the Christian belief in compassion and faith told through the erecting of a makeshift Church for and by Christian migrants in the refugee camps of Calais; and through the stories of volunteers from Kent and France.

In the first feature from Calais, the presenter Sally Magnusson takes us through the make shift Church set up by Ethiopian and Eritrean Christians. We meet one of the priests and ask why they built the temporary Church and what it offers them. We also film at the Sunday service and meet one of the priest’s fellow migrant Christians. In the second feature, Sally meets with a group of Christians from Kent who offer aid and Christian literature to the migrants in Calais because of their belief in Jesus’ message. Sally also talks to French Christian volunteers about the work they do in the camp based on their faith.

The programme is looking at how people express their faith, it is not a political statement on the situation or a judgement on migration, and to suggest so is wrong. Songs of Praise is simply reflecting the conversations going on in many churches and Christian households around the country.

It wasn't an easy place to visit - many were wary of the media and aware of the illegality of their status and actions - many of them were tired and easily agitated. That said, we were made as welcome in the makeshift Church as we would have been in any of the Churches we visit around the world for Songs of Praise.

In that humble Church made of tarpaulin and wood, the ancient world clashed with the new. I talked with the priest and members of the congregation about my fascination with the magnificent ancient monolithic Ethiopian Churches in Lalibela and they crowded around my smart phone to watch a clip of Songs of Praise, they loved the worship even if it was totally different to theirs – one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world. 

The dialogue in that Church was one of faith - not politics; and that's why a show like Songs of Praise is still important. 

Aaqil Ahmed is Head of Religion and Ethics

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