ROME—According to two senior Church leaders, the United States and Europe need to be more generous in welcoming refugees and migrants, as well as coming to the aid of those strained in the Middle East, in order “not close the gates of the countries where people are knocking for survival.”
Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, former Vatican representative in Geneva, suggested those knocking people deserve a more generous response from Western nations. Tomasi, together with retired Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony, was recently in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece, where the two prelates visited refugees and church-operated organizations offering aid and assistance.
Mahony told journalists that nations such as Lebanon and Jordan have been “very heroic” in accommodating large numbers of refugees, hosting an estimated 1.4 million refugees each.
“[These are] very heroic percentages compared to many other countries, especially the United States, which I think is gravely at fault here,” Mahony said. “The U.S. should be far, far more generous.”
Tomasi and Mahony spoke to journalists about their Feb.23-March 9 trip to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece to visit refugees and church-based organizations offering aid and assistance. They met with the media a day after their arrival, in an event hosted by the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
“We saw humanity at its worst and humanity at its best on this journey,” Mahony said. The worst was seeing situations “where men could so mistreat and maltreat other men, women and children. And I’m saying men on purpose, because it’s mostly them who’re doing the damage.”
“On the other side, in the midst of all this suffering and pain, we found the best in the people,” those who are involved in caring and bringing relief and aid to others, such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services and other Catholic charities, and also non-governmental organizations, he said.
“It was very inspiring,” Mahony said.
Both prelates reflected on the current populist sentiments arising in parts of Europe and in the United States.
“This nationalist, populist rise, the campaign posed by [President Donald] Trump, that presented people who’re different as a threat, ‘they’re going to take your job and are going to harm you’,” Mahony said, “compounds the problem.”
From his perspective, countries such as France and England made a mistake by either promoting or allowing for migrant groups to become “ghettoized”. This he said, is what lead to Brexit and far-right political groups in France.
“When you have them all living together without a real effort to integrate them into the fullness of the life of society, you create difficulties,” he said.
Tomasi said he can understand that with the political development of populist movements and xenophobic groups “politicians are concerned about limiting the massive arrival of people in the [European] Union.”
Nevertheless, he continued, the consequence is people remain trapped where they are. Thousands of refugees who’ve fled war and poverty are currently stranded in Greece, as if stuck in purgatory at Europe’s doors.
“They cannot go back and they cannot go forward,” and families often are broken up because they find themselves stuck in different countries, Tomasi said.
The archbishop also said that even though a country’s right to regulate refugee resettlement needs to be respected, so is the United Nations migrants’ convention those nations signed, because human rights and legal commitments must also be upheld.
For Tomasi, the priority has to be the continuation of humanitarian assistance, supporting programs that are making the life of those affected by war and violence in the Middle East “more bearable.”
“Compassion fatigue should have no room in this moment,” he said. “Millions of people are in need, and the generosity should continue.”
Mahony believes that Pope Francis’s continuous appeals for migrants and refugees is the most powerful thing the Church can do. He also believes that Church organizations, the bishops conference and individual bishops who’re currently pushing Trump’s administration and Congress to do more, should continue doing so.
Thinking ahead, to a time when conflicts come to an end, the cardinal warned that the rebuilding of the region must begin by rebuilding the trust that was lost.
“We met so many people who said, ‘I was forced to flee my home, and the one who turned me in as a Christian was my neighbor … How can I go back and trust that neighbor’?”
Mahony also said that since it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 which created “the earthquake” that upset the region, the country has a special responsibility to aid the rebuilding, perhaps by creating some kind of reunification commission in which local churches can be strong leaders.
In the absence of this trust-rebuilding process, the prelates warned, the many groups who were expelled will continue to arm themselves and eventually take revenge.
Speaking about their trip, Tomasi said that another vulnerable group they encountered were domestic workers forced to work in slave-like situations. Today, he said, there are hundreds of thousands around the world, millions if India is taken into account.
He said, for instance, they met some of the 70,000 Filipinos who’re in Beirut as domestic workers.
“They’re paid very little and there are often cases of abuse,” Tomasi said. By law, they can only work with the one family, and cannot try to find a different one. “They’re bound, almost like a form of slavery, in a modern, sophisticated way.”
On the situation of Iraq and Syria at large, Tomasi said the response from the international community has to be both humanitarian and political, “because the root problem of the present situation is found in the desire to dominate the region. There’s a conflict between Sunni and Shia, between government forces and ISIS.”
“And not to be dismissed easily, is the competition for resources from the part of the Russian Federation and the United States,” Tomasi said.