ROME — During a 72 hour period marked by widespread protests over U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to temporarily ban the entrance of citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and pause America’s refugee program, Catholic leaders have been front and center, with many criticizing the decision and one calling it a “dark moment in American history.”
Those notes weren’t just heard in America but from Catholic leaders around the world, including the affected region. Patriarch Raphael Luis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, said of the president’s promise to prioritize Christian immigrants from countries where they’re persecuted: “It’s a trap for Christians in the Middle East.”
“Every policy that discriminates [among] the persecuted and suffering on religious grounds ultimately harms the Christians of the East, because among other things it provides arguments to all the propaganda and prejudice that target the native Christian communities in the Middle East as ‘foreign bodies,’ as groups supported and defended by Western powers,” he said.
A report from the Washington Post seemed to prove Sako’s warning, with claims that Islamic State members have said the ban validates their argument of the West being at war with Islam.
Speaking to Crux’s weekly radio show on the Catholic Channel, Sirius XM 129, Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East section for the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, said that Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, is among the early victims of the travel ban.
Barwa was forced to cancel a trip to the United States, Halemba said, in which he was supposed to meet both Democratic and Republican policymakers to discuss the plight of Christians displaced by ISIS.
It’s been in the United States, however, where Catholic reaction has been the most animated.
“This weekend proved to be a dark moment in U.S. history,” said Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich. “The executive order to turn away refugees and to close our nation to those, particularly Muslims, fleeing violence, oppression and persecution is contrary to both Catholic and American values.”
Chicago has historically been a natural landing spot for immigrants and still is today, as illegal immigrants make up an estimated seven percent of the city’s population.
Cupich, created a cardinal by Pope Francis last November, asked: “Have we not repeated the disastrous decisions of those in the past who turned away other people fleeing violence, leaving certain ethnicities and religions marginalized and excluded?”
“We Catholics know that history well, for, like others, we have been on the other side of such decisions,” Cupich, of Croatian descent, wrote.
Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the United States Bishops’ Conference Committee on Migration, said in a statement Friday that the Church believes in assisting all who are fleeing persecution, no matter their faiths.
“This includes Christians, as well as Yazidis and Shia Muslims from Syria, Rohingyas from Burma, and other religious minorities,” he said. “However, we need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country. They are children of God and are entitled to be treated with human dignity.”
Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who chairs the bishop’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, told the Baltimore Sun that the archdiocese will continue to welcome refugees and immigrants.
The U.S., he said, has the right to secure its borders and citizens, “but our country has always been wonderfully generous and open in welcoming refugees and immigrants, and I really don’t see this as a step in that direction.”
The order, Lori is quoted as saying, is “a step backwards.”
Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego released a statement on Sunday in which he said that for Catholics “the Gospel mandate to ‘welcome the stranger’ is a searing responsibility, not only in our personal lives, but also in guiding our efforts to create a just society in a world filled with suffering and turmoil.”
For this reason, he wrote, Catholics should see the identity of the U.S. as a “safe heaven” for those fleeing war and persecution both as a source of pride and a religious commitment.
“This week is just such a shameful moment of abandonment for the United States,” McElroy wrote.
Trump’s executive order, “and its chaotic implementation” is, according to the bishop, “the introduction into law of campaign sloganeering rooted in xenophobia and religious prejudice.”
“We cannot and will not stand silent,” McElroy closes.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, sent a letter to the priests of his archdiocese on Sunday, and also shared it on his blog. In it, he says that at the time he’s writing it, the legal situation is “still fluid” and news reports confusing. “But in the meantime, real people and real humanitarian concerns are being affected.”
He spoke about the March for Life, held in Washington on Friday for the 44th consecutive year, saying that “our voices-our presence- could not be ignored in the defense of the unborn and life at every stage.”
“So too now do we raise our voices in support of all refugees, especially those fleeing religious persecution,” Wuerl wrote.
The cardinal conceded that there can be “legitimate national security concerns,” but wrote he hoped the federal government pursues them “not at the expense of innocent people who are in need.
“The political debate, which is complex and emotionally highly charged, will continue, but we must do our best to remain focused on the pastoral and very real work we undertake every day for the vulnerable and most in need, for the strangers at our doors,” he wrote.
Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit, made his statement in the form of a letter to the Imams Council of Michigan.
“Please know that the Catholic community will continue to speak out and care for immigrants and refugees, no matter their religion or their country of origin,” he said, before writing that the Detroit community is richer for the contribution “of our brothers and sisters from Mexico and El Salvador, from India and Pakistan, from India and Syria, from China and Korea, from Ukraine and Poland, from Cameroon and Nigeria.”
Bishop Joseph Bambera of Scranton, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of Arlington and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark also released statements condemning Trump’s measures. In the name of the USCCB, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Huston and Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles released a statement on Monday night “In defense of all faiths.”
President and Vice President of the USCCB Stand in Defense of All Faiths in Response to Executive Order on Refugees pic.twitter.com/3qYkZ6v1y7
— US Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) January 30, 2017
At the grassroots, lay Catholics have been often just as animated by Trump’s order.
On Sunday night, for instance, inspired by a social media campaign which “grew organically,” some 550 people gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House to celebrate a Mass in solidarity with refugees.
Emily Conron was one of the masterminds behind it, who together with some friends decided to do something because “watching the news coverage [on Saturday morning] and reading heartbreaking stories about families in jeopardy” left them “feeling sad and angry.”
They decided a Mass was the most powerful way to gather Catholics in solidarity, particularly seeing Sunday’s readings. The Psalm goes “The Lord loves the just; the Lord protects strangers.” And then the Gospel, “Christ sharing the Beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.’”
“The readings really highlight that our Catholic understanding of justice is quite different from that being exercised by our elected officials at this moment,” she told Crux in an email.
They created a Facebook event and it “spread like wildfire,” with 500 people sending their RSVP within hours, and more than 40 people reaching out to volunteer to sing, read and serve at Mass.
“It was clear that people were aching for a way to gather and reflect and discern a path forward during these troubling times, and we were so happy that they were willing to jump into the boat with us and make this happen!” Conron said.
“Jesus was a refugee – and He was with us as we sang Be Not Afraid in front of the White House, doing our small part to show that people of faith will not be silent in the face of injustice,” she said.
Christopher Hale, from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, was also among the organizers. He told Crux that after Sunday’s Mass, they were expecting some 1,000 people from “this organic group” to contact Speaker Paul Ryan, “the most powerful Catholic in the government.”
Ryan’s greatest appeal, Hale said, is his faith, “and from his faith he knows that this is wrong. We Catholics know the history of being a persecuted minority in America.”
Hale, who defined his group as one that has the Catholic Church as its political party, and promoting the magisterium of the Church and Pope Francis’s core messages as a goal, believes that the refugee cause “struck a chord” with Catholics in the States, and that many have awakened to the realization that there is a need for the grassroots involvement of Catholics in politics and public life.
Several Catholic universities also released statements in the past days condemning the action, among other reasons because they have students and professors from the countries affected by the ban.
“The sweeping, indiscriminate and abrupt character of President Trump’s recent Executive Order halts the work of valued students and colleagues who have already passed a rigorous, post-9/11 review process, are vouched for by the university and have contributed so much to our campuses,” wrote Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president, University of Notre Dame.
In the United States, 83 dioceses out of 196 in the country are involved in resettling refugees, including the process of identifying and vetting refugees.
Crux spoke to Monsignor Robert Vitillo, a New Jersey-born priest who today serves as the secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), an organization founded by Pope Pius XII in 1951 under the mandate of networking with bishops’ conferences, religious orders and Catholic organizations around the world that were involved with migrant and refugee work.
Vitillo explained that in very simple terms, a candidate registers with the UN High Commission for Refugees, where he or she makes a claim of being a refugee and U.N. staff looks at the situation to make sure that the person faces a credible threat of persecution in their own country.
Once they’re registered, some qualify for resettlement. Since the mid 1970s, Vitillo said, the ICMC has helped the U.S. resettle a million refugees and today they take care of a Middle East support center, with offices in Istanbul and Beirut.
Once the U.N. accepts a refugee for resettlement, if the person is headed to the U.S., the NGO helps the government study the cases and facilitate the procedures necessary if the refugee is accepted.
ICMC, Vitillo told Crux, does a first screening of refugee candidates, except for Syrians who are reviewed by Homeland Security. Once given the green-light, consular officials in the U.S. study the candidates. Those are interviewed by government officials, often for two or three days.
Only then do candidates receive a medical check-up, and many see their cases denied at this point.
Eventually, if the person is accepted, then ICMC gets involved in the actual resettlement, with a period of cultural orientation with the family, particularly children, to help them understand where they’re going and how different the situation will be. Then they’re referred to the International Organization for Migration for assistance with their journey.
The whole process before the executive order, Vitillo said, could take from 18 to 24 months. Now, it’s unknown.
“The Church has been helping immigrants for centuries, and we hope that there will still be opportunities for this resettlement process,” Vitillo said. “And we know that many of those refuges that were being considered have no other alternative, so we hope that they will have a positive future through resettlement.”