In the wake of increasingly hostile political rhetoric and Congressional action aimed at reducing the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States, Catholic bishops are doubling down on their call for the United States to open its doors to refugees, conjuring up images of past anti-Catholic bigotry to help make their case.
“How can we look the other way, as they huddle with their children in foreign lands with barely any shelter, clothing or food?” wrote Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich in Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times. “We must not. These are our neighbors.”
Cupich pointed to Chicago’s anti-Catholic past, which included a pledge among business owners not to hire Catholics and the election of an anti-Catholic mayor who, in 1855, railed against Catholic Chicagoans, whom he said were “bound under an oath of allegiance to the temporal, as well as the spiritual supremacy of a foreign despot.” (That would be the pope.)
“This is our history, but it need not repeat itself,” Cupich wrote.
In recent days, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump told a reporter he is open to the idea of creating a national registry of Muslim residents in the United States, and he said he witnessed “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the 9/11 attacks. (This account was deemed untrue by political fact checkers.)
The US House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would, in effect, severely limit the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees able to relocate to the United States, in part by requiring three of the Obama Administration’s top security officials to sign off on every refugee admitted.
Opponents of the bill, including Catholic bishops, point out that refugees are already subject to up to two years’ worth of screening, as well as intense follow-up checks once they are admitted.
“The security screening process for refugees is more stringent than the process for foreign tourists, students, businesspeople or anyone else,” Cupich wrote.
But proponents of the legislation, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a practicing Catholic, say the extra security measures are justified. The bill passed Thursday by a vote of 289-137, with the support of 47 Congressional Democrats. The Obama administration has promised to veto the legislation should it clear the Senate.
Even though Cupich is considered to be center-left among the US hierarchy, support for Syrian refugees does not fit neatly into US ideological buckets.
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, a leader among the conservative wing of the US hierarchy, penned an op-ed Sunday in the New York Daily News in which he appealed to New Yorkers to remember their response to the 9/11 attacks, which he said largely avoided blaming Muslims for the atrocity.
“Today, we must once again make certain that the hatred directed toward us by others does not in turn lead us to close our minds and our hearts to the pain and suffering of those in need,” he wrote. “To do so would mean a different kind of destruction, this time to our morals and our principles.”
Last week, during an annual gathering of US bishops in Baltimore, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle released a statement on behalf of US bishops in which he said he was disturbed by calls to limit the resettlement of refugees.
“Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees, I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes,” he wrote.
“As a great nation, the United States must show leadership during this crisis and bring nations together to protect those in danger and bring an end to the conflicts in the Middle East,” he continued.
Other bishops continue to weigh-in on the issue:
- The four Catholic bishops of Missouri took on Gov. Jay Nixon for joining more than two dozen of his colleagues in refusing to welcome refugees in that state, calling on Nixon in a letter released Friday to “to work with federal officials to both keep our citizens safe and to allow refugees from war-torn Syrian to settle in our state.”
- In New Hampshire, Bishop Peter Libasci called on the governor there to reverse her decision to limit resettlement, and said in a Friday statement that the local Catholic Charities agency “stands ready to offer our assistance to refugees who may come to the Granite State seeking asylum from Syria.”
- Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island urged Americans to calm down, warning, “In these turbulent times, it is important that prudence not be replaced by hysteria.”
- And bishops in New Mexico on Monday slammed lawmakers who sought to use the attacks in Paris as leverage to limit drivers’ licenses for immigrants, and they called on Catholics there to send letters to Obama, “urging him to expand US resettlement efforts of Syrian refugees who are fleeing unspeakable atrocities and violence.”
While Catholic bishops continue their pro-refugee campaign, a recent poll suggests they have their work cut out for them.
Americans largely oppose welcoming more refugees from Syria and other Mideast conflicts, 54 to 43 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday.