[Austen Ivereigh] Describing Britain’s response to the refugee crisis as a test of its moral identity and culture, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales have called for “a generous response” to taking newcomers that goes well beyond the Government’s current commitments.
Speaking at the end of their plenary meeting in Leeds, the bishops said the vast numbers of displaced people in refugee camps throughout the world “are our brothers and sisters” who “command our moral concern” and who should be assisted on the basis of what they need rather than who they are.
“The barbarous attacks in Paris last week should not deter us from caring for those in need,” the bishops said in their statement.
The UK Government has pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 but that is “too few,” the bishops’ conference president, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, told journalists last Friday, adding that there was a “readiness” to accept many more, and that “every extension” of the Government’s program would be welcome.
“On our part and on the Church of England’s part, concrete offers are on the table,” he said.
An estimated 9m Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself. More than 3m have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, while 6.5m are internally displaced within Syria. Close to 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the European Union, while member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000, mostly in Germany. France is taking 24,000 refugees over the next two years.
Cardinal Nichols criticized calls for the screening of Muslim immigrants by US Republican Party candidate Donald Trump. “Most refugees are victims of violence, not perpetrators,” he said, and while vigilance was needed it was wrong to discriminate against any refugee on the basis of their religion. He added: “We should not cast the mischief made by a tiny number of people across the shoulders of people who are desperate and themselves victims of terrible violence.”
But he pointed out that the Government’s program to accept and resettle Syrian refugees unintentionally excluded Christian refugees. Refugees were taken from camps run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whereas Christian refugees are accommodated outside those camps.
“I quite understand how the Government has got itself into this position, and it can’t discriminate on the basis of religion,” the cardinal said. “But an accidental consequence might be that very few Christian families are being given that opportunity.”
The bishops also call on the Governments of England and Wales to recognize integration initiatives that allow refugees to work and contribute to wider society, and say the Catholic community offers “encouragement and example” through its many projects. “Effective resettlement goes far beyond simply allowing people to reside here,” the bishops say.
The bishops heard from each other about Church-based initiatives to support refugees or ecumenical projects supported by Catholics. Cardinal Nichols said a number of bishops had been traveling in order to understand some of the causes of the migration flows.
“The world is in a very troubled state at the moment, and it’s important that the depth of this compassion and practical help are well understood in our responses,” he said.
Among the other issues the bishops deliberated on last week were the recent synod of bishops, the Year of Mercy, and the encyclical Laudato Si‘.
On the synod, the bishops spent time discussing “pathways of accompaniment” for divorced and remarried wanting to be integrated into parish life while hearing from canon lawyers about the implications of Pope Francis’s new rules for speeding and streamlining the process of ruling on marriage nullity, allowing bishops to act as judges where the facts are not disputed.
Cardinal Nichols said he had been astonished to learn that only 80 dioceses in the world had functioning tribunals. “I think most of ours work fairly well, so the urgency of need is not necessarily here,” he said. “The most significant thing for us is the removal of the necessity to have a second review of a decision, and that will help a great deal.”
Cardinal Nichols said it was also helpful that people could now apply to tribunals in the place where they lived rather than where they got married.
Year of Mercy podcasts
The bishops shared information on the initiatives each was taking in response to the Year of Mercy, which opens on 8 December. Cardinal Nichols said there had been “a lot of focus on the Sacrament of Reconciliation”, which he described as “the crucial meeting place for experiencing what Pope Francis calls ‘the caress of God’s mercy.'”
He said the bishops’ evangelization programs had been fashioned “as a desire to respond to the mercy of God which I have received and therefore the desire to let other people know about that and the desire to share it.”
While in Leeds, 25 bishops recorded podcasts on the theme of mercy that will be put out daily after 8 December.
Laudato Si’ teaching document
The bishops have agreed to put together resources for exploring and digesting Pope Francis’s encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’, starting from the final chapter 6. Their resources will complement Cafod’s study guide by going more deeply into the spirituality and theology of what is to be human and to care for creation.