ROME – As Italy is currently torn by the case of a young woman who apparently converted to Islam during her captivity with Islamic extremists in Kenya, Pope Francis has urged an end to fear and prejudice in a message for migrants and refugees.
In his message for this year’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees, Pope Francis warned that “Fears and prejudices – all too many prejudices – keep us distant from others and often prevent us from ‘becoming neighbors’ to them and serving them with love.”
“Drawing close to others often means being willing to take risks, as so many doctors and nurses have taught us in recent months,” he said, insisting that this readiness to serve “goes beyond a mere sense of duty.”
Published May 15, the pope’s message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees, set for Sept. 27, 2020, is titled, “Like Jesus Christ, forced to flee. Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating internally displaced persons.”
As Italy has demonstrated the past few days in the case of Silvia Romano – a 24-year-old Italian woman recently liberated after 18 months of captivity in Kenya who apparently converted to Islam – this sense of fear and prejudice is not limited to just migrants and refugees, but it can also hit much closer to home.
Since Romano stepped out of the plane Sunday wearing traditional Islamic clothing, she has become the target of derogatory and even violent social media attacks, with some accusing her of cooperating with terrorism and others saying she should be sent back.
Speaking to journalists at the May 15 presentation of the pope’s message, Father Fabio Baggio, undersecretary of the Migrants and refugees section of the Vatican’s department for Integral Human Development, said prejudice “creeps is into our culture in a very subtle way,” and can become a regular part of one’s thinking.
“Many times it disguises itself, it assumes that external façade of the measure of security regarding threats that could come from outside,” he said, noting that fears over these theoretical threats can become generalized, leading to suspicions about a specific person or group.
Referring to past statements made by Pope Francis, Baggio stressed the need to have “the courage to overcome fear,” because “Fear is what prevents us from ability to live our Christian faith.”
“It’s not something simple,” he said, “but it is a process we must learn how to do. The lack of awareness of the other is often what leads us to prejudice.”
In terms of how to overcome fear in a country such as Italy that is culturally Catholic, Cardinal Michael Czerny, who is also an undersecretary for the Vatican’s migrants and refugee’s office, said “angels of encounter” are needed.
Fear, “is the strongest obstacle, not only against the humanity of the other, but also the faith,” he said, insisting that it is not overcome with arguments or syllogisms, “but encounter.”
“There is a need to call on an angel of encounter, who leads us to encounter others,” and to discover them as a brother or sister, he said.
Similarly, Amaya Valcárcel, international coordinator of advocacy for the Jesuit Refugee Service, said her career can be credited to a migrant she met while working at a soup kitchen as a young college student in 1996.
At the time, she was studying law but was feeling a bit lost, she said, noting that after befriending a man from Somalia who told her about the war and violence that made him leave his homeland, “I decided to take my professional life forward in this area.”
“It is thanks to this encounter that I am here,” she said, noting that migrants, refugees and those from different backgrounds, “can change the perspective of your life.”
In the message, Pope Francis also likened the sense of abandonment and rejection felt by some due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic to the plight of the internally displaced, saying the virus has exacerbated “an often unseen tragedy.”
“Due to its virulence, severity and geographical extent, this crisis has impacted on many other humanitarian emergencies that affect millions of people, which has relegated to the bottom of national political agendas those urgent international efforts essential to saving lives,” he said.
The pope’s message was published a week after the migrants and refugees section of the Vatican department for Integral Human Development issued a set of pastoral guidelines on internally displaced people.
In addition to the “welcome, protect, promote and integrate” approach the Vatican has taken in regards to migrants, Francis in his message added six other pairs of verbs which he said, “deal with very practical actions and are linked together in a relationship of cause and effect.”
These verbs, he said, are: To know in order to understand; to be close in order to serve; to be reconciled requires listening; to grow requires sharing; to be involved in order to promote; and to cooperate in order to build.
“When we talk about migrants and displaced persons, all too often we stop at statistics. But it is not about statistics, it is about real people!” he said. “If we encounter them, we will get to know more about them. And knowing their stories, we will be able to understand them.”
Speaking of the importance of listening, the pope noted that, “In today’s world, messages multiply but the practice of listening is being lost.”
“It is only through humble and attentive listening that we can truly be reconciled,” the pope said, noting that for much of 2020, “silence has reigned for weeks in our streets. A dramatic and troubling silence, but one that has given us the opportunity to listen to the plea of the vulnerable, the displaced and our seriously ill planet.”
He also cautioned against the tendency to look past a person in an effort to serve them, saying, “Sometimes the impulse to serve others prevents us from seeing their real riches.”
“If we really want to promote those whom we assist, we must involve them and make them agents in their own redemption,” he said, adding that the current pandemic “has reminded us of how essential co-responsibility is, and that only with the contribution of everyone – even of those groups so often underestimated – can we face this crisis.”
“To preserve our common home and make it conform more and more to God’s original plan,” he said, “we must commit ourselves to ensuring international cooperation, global solidarity and local commitment, leaving no one excluded.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen