Christian thing to do
The Philippines has offered sanctuary to nine waves of refugees fleeing persecution, violence and war—from the White Russians in 1923, the Jewish war refugees in the 1940s and the Vietnamese escaping a communist takeover in the 1970s.
With its twin tradition of compassion and Christian charity, predominantly-Catholic Philippines should find Pope Francis’ recent exhortation relevant and crucial at this time when hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing death, unrest and conflict in Africa and the Middle East for the safer shores of Europe.
In his homily at the Vatican on Sunday, the Pope issued a broad appeal to Europe’s Catholics, calling on “every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family.” The Gospel “calls us to be close to the smallest and to those who have been abandoned,” he said, adding: “[It is] violence to raise walls and barriers to stop those who seek havens of peace. It is violence to reject those who flee from inhumane conditions, with hope of a better future.”
Per United Nations estimates, more people have been displaced in recent months than at any other time since World War II, with asylum-seekers seeking safe haven and better prospects by any means. News about 71 people found dead of suffocation inside a truck in Austria and that heartbreaking picture of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdis drowned along with his brother and mother on the family’s way from Syria to Turkey on board a frail dinghy give a tragic face to the desperate humanity left adrift by indifference and xenophobic religious debate.
Viktor Orban, the prime minister of predominantly-Catholic Hungary, last week declared Europe’s “Christian identity” under siege, as the refugees “have been raised in another religion, and represent a radically different culture.” Meanwhile, Slovakia declared it would grant asylum only to Christians.
Pope Francis, whose grandparents left Italy to make a new life in Argentina, delivered a direct challenge to such a polarizing mindset. On Sunday, he said refugee families would be offered shelter inside the two parishes within the Vatican’s jurisdiction, as a solid example of how everyone can pitch in.
He said it was not enough to say “have courage, hang in there” to those casting about for what he described as “life’s hope.” He thus called on Catholic bishops and Catholics of all nations to follow suit and take in desperate asylum-seekers as a way to “express the Gospel in concrete terms.”
As the Church calls on the faithful in Europe to lend a hand and open their homes to people driven out by conflict, Filipinos can do no less. Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Charles Jose set the right tone when he declared that refugees in Europe, should they find their way here, are welcome to stay until they find a more permanent home.
Jose’s initiative brings to mind the 1940 Philippine Immigration Act signed by President Quezon which continues to be valid today. The law gives the President the prerogative to issue a humanitarian visa for people fleeing persecution 11 years before the rest of the world did, in the form of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Filipinos in Europe can follow the Vatican’s example and take in families in their homes, at least until they can find their bearings again and start life anew. In the meantime, they can help these asylum-seekers find their way through the bureaucratic maze made even more formidable by language and cultural barriers. They can assist refugees navigate and hasten the often tricky application process enroute to their legal and official status.
Using social media, Filipinos here and in Europe can raise funds as well, gather and donate supplies most needed by refugee families: food, milk and diapers for babies, rent money, clothes, medical treatment, and so on. Filipino groups, of which there are many in Europe, can band together to help in registration centers and volunteer their time and services to make life easier to these disoriented newcomers in Europe. Catholic groups and church associations too can open space for daycare centers and makeshift schools for children of refugee families, even as their elders can be trained for jobs to give them back their moorings and dignity.
We can no longer dismiss the refugee crisis as “Europe’s moral problem” because it affects us all. As UN official for refugees Bernard Kerblat described it, “Refugees are not a burden; they are also first and foremost contributors to the local economy.” And with the wave of Europe’s refugees including engineers, doctors and other professionals, giving them a hand could mean handing ourselves a better future as well.
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