18 July 2017
In the video above, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, the papal nuncio to Iraq, expresses his hopes for Christians in that beleaguered country. (video: CNS/YouTube)
To understand the current situation in Iraq — the evolving and complex conflicts there, and the fear and resilience of its Christians — one has to understand its past, which is often ignored or unknown in the West, said a former papal representative to the country.
“History is itself a victory over ignorance, marginalization and intolerance; it is a call for respect and to not repeat the mistakes of the past,” said Cardinal Fernando Filoni in his book, “The Church in Iraq.”
The book is also “a testimonial” to the victims of “the Islamic terrorism of ISIS,” he told the Christians and non-Christians he met when Pope Francis sent him as his personal representative to encounter and pray with these shaken communities that fled the Islamic State.
That brief visit in 2014 was a homecoming of sorts.
The Italian cardinal, now 71, lived in Iraq during a time of great tension and turmoil. St. John Paul II made him the apostolic nuncio — the pope’s diplomatic representative — to Iraq and Jordan in January 2001. Several months later, after 9/11, the United States administration started building pressure against Iraq, pushing for military action.
St. John Paul firmly opposed military intervention and, despite the fact that he sent peace-seeking missions to Washington and Baghdad, the United States attacked.
“Not even the stern warning of the saint-pope could deter President George W. Bush from his purpose,” the cardinal wrote. He said the day of the invasion, 19 March 2003, became “a very sad day for Iraq and for the whole world.”
The nunciature never shut down, not even during the airstrikes and occupation or the ensuing chaos of looting and revenge.
It was during his tenure there in Baghdad, which ended in 2006, that Cardinal Filoni went through the nunciature’s archives, which housed “a rich history” of documentation and letters, detailing the history of the Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Iraq and the establishment of an episcopal see in Baghdad in the 16th century.
“Naturally, this caught my eye,” he said, and the idea for a book emerged there in the wealth of material buried in an archive.
The book’s chapters take a historical overview of the church’s long presence in Mesopotamia, dating back to the time of St. Thomas the Apostle, and looks at how the expanding early Christian communities there evolved, faced internal divisions and challenges, and still shared their unique gifts.
Looking at the church’s journey in the past also made him realize: “This is unknown to us. And so I thought, writing a book that traced, especially for us in the West, the birth, the evolution of this history up to present day could be ... of service to Christianity in the Middle East, particularly in Mesopotamia, which is suffering because of expulsions, persecution or discrimination.”
Published first in Italian in 2015, The Catholic University of America Press is releasing the English edition toward the end of July in the United States and in mid-August in the United Kingdom.
The cardinal spoke to Catholic News Service in Rome during an interview at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, where he has served as prefect since 2011.
The book looks particularly at how minorities and the country as a whole suffered invasions, despots and Western hegemony, and yet tenaciously held on to its cultures and religious identities.
“In order to defend their identity within this great sea of Islam, Christians had to withdraw into themselves, keeping their own language, which dates back to the time of Jesus, that is, Aramaic,” he said. While, over the centuries, the everyday spoken language developed into different dialects, the liturgy still maintained the original form of ancient Aramaic, he added.
Even though Christians held on to their traditions and culture, they were “truly open” and didn’t ignore the world around them, learning and speaking Arabic, for example, he said.
This kind of everyday contact between Christians and their Muslim neighbors also led to a sharing of ideas, influence and mutual respect on the local level, Cardinal Filoni said.
For example, he recalled when he lived in Baghdad, he visited a church dedicated to Mary in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
“I was astounded by the fact that the walls of this church were dirty” with what looked like handprints smudged everywhere, he said.
When he asked church members, “‘Why don’t you clean this?’ They said ‘No! Because these are the signs of the Muslim women who come to pray to Mary, mother of Jesus, and as a sign of their prayer, they leave an imprint of their hand.’”
Since Mary is revered by Muslims, he said many expectant mothers visit this church to pray to her for protection.
“This influence, for example of Mary, in people’s daily lives” and similar devotions to prayer, fasting and charity, fostered closer relationships, mutual respect and understanding between Christians and Muslims, he said.
“A modern Iraq, full of history, of possibility and responsibility — not least because of its huge oil resources, which continue to be a source of discord, jealousy, envy, and oppression — should be defended, helped, and supported more than ever,” the cardinal concludes in his book.
While the primary responsibility for allowing Muslim, Christian and other minorities to return to their country and help build its future belongs to Iraq’s three largest communities — Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds — the rest of the world is also “in some way responsible for this crisis,” he told CNS.
“We all have to assume responsibility to rebuild, which is very difficult, because once people emigrate, they very rarely go back,” he said. “But if we can still preserve the coexistence of these even small communities (that remain), this will benefit peace, which is essential so that Christians don’t keep leaving behind this ancient land so rich in culture, tradition and history.”
8 May 2017
Seminarians last weekend ran a relay across Italy to raise funds for displaced Iraqis in Erbil, such as those shown above. (photo: Paul Jeffrey)
Loaded with peanut butter sandwiches, power bars, Gatorade, grit and prayer, nine U.S. seminarians studying in Rome ran relay-style across the Italian peninsula to raise funds for displaced families in Iraq.
Warm-up included a pre-dawn Mass 6 May at the Pontifical North American College where the students live, followed by packing two vans with nine runners, two drivers and protein- and carb-rich provisions, Christian Huebner of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., told Catholic News Service on 4 May.
One van headed to the Mediterranean Sea near Fiumicino and the other van went east to the Adriatic Sea.
“When we arrive, we dip a finger in the water and run to the middle” of the peninsula, which is about 240 miles across, he said. The students meet up in the middle by evening “in some random parking lot” as long as it had a gas station and pizzeria to replenish tanks and tummies.
He said the men take turns running one leg of five to nine miles to a planned checkpoint and then the finishing runner would “slap hands” to hand-off the virtual baton to the next runner in the relay.
The men stretched and rested in the moving van, encouraging the one on the road along the way, he said.
The one-day run raised more than $15,000 dollars, in part thanks to an anonymous donor who matched every dollar pledged. The money goes to the pontifical foundation, Aid to the Church in Need, which will use the funding to continue a program that feeds some of the 12,000 displaced families from Mosul living in Erbil.
The Chaldean Catholic Archeparchy of Erbil, in conjunction with other aid agencies, is the largest provider of aid to the displaced families in that area, the seminarians said on their “Roman Run for Erbil” donor page.
The Chaldean Church organizes pastoral programs, runs seven schools that are open to displaced children and provides food aid, said the donor page on the www.ChurchInNeed.org site.
This was the third year a group of U.S. seminarians — led by Deacon Michael Zimmerman of the Archdiocese of Boston — got together to do a fundraising run for a common cause. Past efforts raised money for a seminary in Haiti, a pro-life center in the United Kingdom and the Syriac Catholic Church, Huebner said.
Unfortunately, he said, Deacon Zimmerman, the run’s founder, had to miss this year’s run because of a soccer injury.
The biggest and most important aim of the relay run, Huebner said, was supplying prayer for and solidarity with those who are suffering.
“One thing the Holy Father says,” is the importance of “taking prayer with you along the way” every day, and the “Roman Run” does that, he said, with prayer being a part of the training, fundraising and race.
“We use the opportunity to encourage people to a life in prayer, no matter where we find ourselves in life,” Huebner said. “Prayer can soak into any part of life like a sponge.”
28 April 2017
Pope Francis embraces Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar University, at a conference on international peace in Cairo 28 April. (photo: CNS/Paul Haring)
Calling his visit to Egypt a journey of “unity and fraternity,” Pope Francis launched a powerful call to the nation's religious leaders to expose violence masquerading as holy and condemn religiously inspired hatred as an idolatrous caricature of God.
“Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name,” the pope told Muslim and Christian leaders at an international peace conference on 28 April. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was in attendance.
Pope Francis also warned of attempts to fight violence with violence, saying “every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence.”
The pope began a two-day visit to Cairo by speaking at a gathering organized by Egypt’s al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest institute of learning.
He told reporters on the papal plane from Rome that the trip was significant for the fact that he was invited by the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb; Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi; Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; and Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria.
Having these four leaders invite him for the trip shows it is “a trip of unity and fraternity” that will be “quite, quite intense” over the next two days, he said.
Greeted with a standing ovation and a few scattered shouts of “viva il papa” (long live the pope), the pope later greeted conference participants saying, “Peace be with you” in Arabic.
He gave a 23-minute talk highlighting Egypt’s great and “glorious history” as a land of civilization, wisdom and faith in God. Small olive branches symbolizing peace were among the greenery adorning the podium.
Religious leaders have a duty to respect everyone’s religious identity and have “the courage to accept differences,” he said in the talk that was interrupted by applause several times.
Those who belong to a different culture or religion “should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travelers,” he said.
Religion needs to take its sacred and essential place in the world as a reminder of the “great questions about the meaning of life” and humanity’s ultimate calling. “We are not meant to spend all of our energies on the uncertain and shifting affairs of this world, but to journey toward the absolute,” he said.
He emphasized that religion “is not a problem, but a part of the solution” because it helps people lift their hearts toward God “in order to learn how to build the city of man.”
Egypt is the land where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which include “Thou shalt not kill,” the pope said. God “exhorts us to reject the way of violence as the necessary condition for every earthly covenant.”
“Violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression,” he said. “As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the ‘absolutizing’ of selfishness than on authentic openness to the absolute.”
“We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God.” God is holy, the pope said, and “he is the God of peace.”
He asked everyone at the al-Azhar conference to say “once more, a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”
Not only are faith and violence, belief and hatred incompatible, he said, faith that is not “born of sincere heart and authentic love toward the merciful God” is nothing more than a social construct “that does not liberate man, but crushes him.”
Christians, too, must treat everyone as brother and sister if they are to truly pray to God, the father of all humanity, the pope said.
“It is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection,” he said. “What is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction.”
The pope again appealed for people to address the root causes of terrorism, like poverty and exploitation, and stopping the flow of weapons and money to those who provoke violence.
“Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented,” he said.
Education and a wisdom that is open, curious and humble are key, he said, saying properly formed young people can grow tall like strong trees turning “the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity.”
He called on all of Egypt to continue its legacy of being a land of civilization and covenant so it can contribute to peace for its own people and the whole Middle East.
The challenge of turning today’s “incivility of conflict” into a “civility of encounter” demands that “we, Christians, Muslims and all believers, are called to offer our specific contribution” as brothers and sisters living all under the one and same sun of a merciful God.
The pope and Sheik el-Tayeb embraced after the sheik gave his introductory address, which emphasized that only false notions of religion, including Islam, lead to violence. The grand imam expressed gratitude for the pope’s remarks in which he rejected the association of Islam with terror.
The sheik began his speech by requesting the audience stand for a minute’s silence to commemorate the victims of terrorism in Egypt and globally, regardless of their religions.
“We should not hold religion accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers,” he said. “For example, Islam is not a religion of terrorism” just because a small group of fanatics “ignorantly” misinterpret texts of the Quran to support their hatred.
The security surrounding the pope’s arrival seemed typical of many papal trips even though the country was also in the midst of a government-declared three-month state of emergency following the bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday. The attacks, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left 44 people dead and 70 more injured.
Egypt Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and other Egyptian officials warmly greeted Pope Francis on the airport red carpet after the pope disembarked from the plane.
They walked together, chatting animatedly, to the VIP hall of Cairo International Airport, then the pontiff was whisked off to the presidential palace to meet el-Sissi at the start of his brief 27-hour visit.
Pope Francis repeated his calls for strengthening peace in his speech to hundreds of officials representing government, the diplomatic corps, civil society and culture.
“No civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the sacred name of God,” he said.
History does not forgive those who talk about justice and equality, and then practice the opposite, he said.
It is a duty to “unmask the peddlers of illusions about the afterlife” and who rob people of their lives and take away their ability to “choose freely and believe responsibly.”
9 March 2017
A displaced Iraqi woman prays the rosary in 2014 inside St. Joseph Church in Erbil, Iraq. The church gives refuge to thousands of people who were displaced by ISIS.
(photo: CNS/Daniel Etter, CRS)
Given the ongoing crises in the Middle East, North American, European and other Western nations will need to be more generous in coming to the aid of refugees and displaced peoples, said two prominent church leaders.
The answer is continued assistance, “not to close the gates of the countries where people are knocking for survival,” said Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, former Vatican representative to U.N. agencies in Geneva.
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, retired archbishop of Los Angeles, told journalists that nations like Lebanon and Jordan have been “very heroic” in accommodating large numbers of refugees, “as compared to many other countries, especially the United States, which I think is gravely at fault here.”
The archbishop and cardinal spoke about a 10-day visit to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Greece to visit refugees and church-based organizations offering aid and assistance. The 9 March media event was 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,” Cardinal Mahony said. The worst was seeing situations “where men could so mistreat and maltreat other men, women and children.”
“On the other side, in the midst of all this suffering and pain, we found the best in the people,” who were involved in caring and bringing relief and aid to others, such as members of Catholic charities, international volunteers and nongovernmental organizations. “It was very inspiring.”
Both Archbishop Tomasi and Cardinal Mahony noted how the current populist sentiments in parts of Europe and the United States were negatively affecting the health, lives and dignity of millions of people needing accommodation and assistance.
“I can understand that with the political development of populist movements and xenophobic groups that politicians are concerned about limiting the massive arrival of people in the (European) Union,” Archbishop Tomasi said. However, he added, the consequence is people are trapped where they are, “they cannot go back and they cannot go forward,” and families often are broken up because they find themselves stuck in different countries.
A country’s right to regulate how many people come to them for resettlement needs to be respected, he said, but human rights and legal commitments to international conventions must also be respected, he said.
Making the problem worse, Cardinal Mahony said, was an approach taken during President Donald Trump’s election campaign, which “posed people who are different from you, (as) a threat to you, a threat to your jobs” and “they’re going to harm you.”
“This generalization of people who are different as a threat just compounds the issue and the problem,” he said.
The best way to handle resettlement, he added, is for the incoming family to have local families and communities, like a parish, reach out and help integrate them into the local culture.
While the world struggles to find a solution to the refugee crisis, “we need to support the programs that are making their lives less miserable,” such as those run by Catholic Relief Services and Jesuit Refugee Service, Archbishop Tomasi said.
“Compassion fatigue should have no room at this moment,” as millions of people are still in need, he said.
30 January 2017
An elderly woman from Mosul, Iraq, sits at a refugee camp in Khazer, Iraq, on 29 January. Giving priority to Christian refugees for settlement programs would be “a trap” that discriminates and fuels religious tensions in the Middle East, said Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad.
(photo: CNS/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters)
Giving priority to Christian refugees for settlement programs would be “a trap” that discriminates and fuels religious tensions in the Middle East, said Iraq's Chaldean Catholic patriarch.
“Every reception policy that discriminates (between) the persecuted and suffering on religious grounds ultimately harms the Christians of the East” and would be “a trap for Christians in the Middle East,” said Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad.
The patriarch, speaking to Fides, the news agency of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, commented on an executive action by U.S. President Donald Trump that temporarily stops from U.S. entry refugees from all over the world and migrants from seven countries in an attempt to review the screening process. The document asks that once the ban is lifted, refugee claims based on religious persecution be prioritized.
Patriarch Sako said any preferential treatment based on religion provides the kind of arguments used by those who propagate “propaganda and prejudice that attack native Christian communities of the Middle East as ‘foreign bodies’” or as groups that are “supported and defended by Western powers.”
“These discriminating choices,” he said, “create and feed tensions with our Muslim fellow citizens. Those who seek help do not need to be divided according to religious labels. And we do not want privileges. This is what the Gospel teaches, and what was pointed out by Pope Francis, who welcomed refugees in Rome who fled from the Middle East, both Christians and Muslims without distinction.”
Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, president of Caritas Internationalis, said any policy that gave priorities to Christians “might revive some of these animosities and might even pit Christians against Muslims, and that (also) might generate contrary action from the Muslims against Christians.”
“This is a time when we don’t want to add to the prejudice, the biases and even discriminatory attitudes evolving in the world,” he told Catholic News Service in Beirut 30 January at the Caritas Lebanon headquarters.
Emphasizing that he had not read the text of the executive action, but only news reports, the Philippine cardinal said announcing a ban being applied to specific countries was akin to “labeling them — and the migrants coming from those countries — as possible threats to a country. I think it is quite a generalization that needs to be justified.”
Cardinal Tagle, who has visited refugee settlements as part of his role as Caritas president, said he asks people who express reservations about receiving refugees and migrants, “Have you ever talked to a real refugee? Have you heard stories of real persons?”
“Very often, the refugee issue is reduced to statistics and an abstraction,” he said, and when people actually talk with refugees, “you realize that there is a human story, a global story (there) and if you just open your ears, your eyes, your heart then you could say, ‘This could be my mother. This could be my father. This could be my brother, my child.’
“These are human lives,” he said. “So, for people making decisions on the global level, please know that whatever you decide touches persons for better or for worse. And if our decisions are not based on the respect for human dignity and for what is good, then we will just be prolonging this problem — creating conflicts that drive people away.”
Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, undersecretary for migrants and refugees at the Vatican’s new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, told CNS in Rome that Christians are asked to reflect on the Good Samaritan and not to “react and act as if the plight of migrants and refugees is none of our business.”
People should focus on those seeking security and “take the trouble to find out the facts” — like how “migrants, far from being a drain, make a net contribution to the domestic economy — rather (than) swallow allegations which just trigger fear.”
Richer countries should not only welcome those who are fleeing, they “can do much more to help improve security and living, working, education and health opportunities in the refugee- and migrant-producing countries,” he said in a written statement.
More effort should be put into peacemaking and more resources dedicated to “helpful foreign aid.”
“The role of government is to enact its people’s values, keeping different factors in balance. National security is important, but always in balance with human security, which includes values like openness, solidarity, hope for the future,” the Jesuit priest said.
“The bottom line,” he said “is the centrality and dignity of the human person, where you cannot favor ‘us’ and ‘them,’ citizens over others.”
Contributing to this story was Doreen Abi Raad in Beirut.
17 November 2016
A child plays with a balloon in Douma, Syria on 13 November. Pope Francis has called events unfolding in the war-torn country a veritable “workshop of cruelty.”
(photo: CNS/Bassam Khabieh, Reuters)
Where there is no tenderness, there is cruelty and what is unfolding in Syria is a veritable “workshop of cruelty,” Pope Francis told governing members of Caritas Internationalis.
“I believe the greatest illness of today is cardiac sclerosis,” he said on 17 November, implying a kind of hardening of the heart that renders a person unable to feel compassion or be moved by another’s suffering.
An example of this, he said, is Syria and how so many parties are involved in the conflict, each bent on seeking its own interests and not the freedom and well-being of the people.
“Where there is no tenderness, there is always cruelty. And what is happening today in Syria is cruelty. There are intersecting interests, a workshop of cruelty,” he said.
At the meeting of the Caritas Internationalis’ representative council, Pope Francis also discussed the dangers of bureaucracies and his hope that Caritas would not be one.
“I would like Caritas not to be an institution that depends on the pope, the Holy See, Cor Unum, (the Pontifical Council for) Justice and Peace. No. It is a federation of diocesan Caritas (agencies) that are linked with the Holy See,” he said.
In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI issued new statutes for Caritas Internationalis, a Vatican-based confederation of 165 national Catholic charities, to place it under the supervision of Cor Unum. But Cor Unum will cease to exist 1 January 2017, when it is absorbed together with three other pontifical councils into the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
The Caritas statutes will have to be rewritten to reflect the reorganization of the Roman Curia, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, president of Caritas Internationalis, told Catholic News Service after the papal audience.
Cardinal Peter Turkson, who will be prefect of the new dicastery, was scheduled to meet with Caritas representatives to discuss what kind of relationship the confederation would have with the new office.
The pope told the Caritas representatives, about 80 people gathered in the apostolic palace’s Sala Clementina, that he asked Cardinal Tagle whether he should read his written speech aloud or just sit and listen to what they had to say and have a “little dialogue.”
“We chose the second” proposal, the pope said to applause.
As is the usual practice, the audience was broadcast via closed-circuit audio feed so journalists could report on the proceedings as they unfolded. However, the last minute change in the nature of the meeting meant the Vatican cut off the audio feed after about 13 minutes. The Vatican later said the encounter was meant to be private.
An unidentified man from Aleppo, Syria, thanked the pope for his encouragement and underlined the importance of the church’s presence in the Arab-Islamic world.
An unidentified woman who covers Caritas efforts in the Middle East and North Africa said Pope Francis’ call to be a sign of tenderness to the people truly changed their hearts and minds and approach to their work, giving them greater courage in a sometimes “arid” world.
The pope told his audience that a “revolution of tenderness” was needed, especially in a world dominated by a “throwaway culture.”
Being tender and close to the people means holding them, embracing them and “to not be afraid of the flesh,” the pope said.
God chose to become flesh through his son so he could be even closer to humanity; the church, too, must be near the people and show this same love — this “tenderness of the Father,” he said.
The flesh of Christ today, he said, are people who are unwanted, exploited and victims of war.
“For this reason the proposals of spirituality (that are) too theoretical are new forms of gnosticism and gnosticism is a heresy,” he said. Gnosticism reflects an idea that a select elite can develop special powers and gifts through specialized knowledge that is hidden from most people.
20 June 2016
Angela Yaacoub, a 60-year-old widow from Mosul, visits St. Anthony’s Dispensary in Beirut, Lebanon. The dispensary helps care for refugees who have fled Iraq. To mark World Refugee Day, Pope Francis has called on Christians to “stand with refugees... to become with them artisans of peace.” (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Assist and accompany refugees while working to build peace in the world, Pope Francis urged on the eve of World Refugee Day.
“Refugees are people like everyone, but war took away their home, work, relatives and friends,” he said in the run-up to the United Nations-sponsored day 20 June.
Seeing the faces and hearing the stories of refugees should lead Christians “to renew our obligation to build peace through justice,” he said after praying the Angelus with people gathered in St. Peter’s Square 19 June.
“This is why we want to stand with them — to encounter them, welcome them, listen to them — in order to become together with them artisans of peace, according to God’s will,” the pope said, referring to the day’s theme, “We Stand #WithRefugees.”
The pope’s appeal followed a joint effort by the Vatican police, the Greek government and Rome’s Sant’Egidio Community to bring a group of Syrian refugees to Italy.
The Vatican police accompanied nine refugees — six adults and three children — from Athens to Rome 16 June. The community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization, was arranging their housing.
The Syrian citizens, including two Christians, had been living in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos — the same island Pope Francis visited in April to highlight the dramatic situation of the people there. He brought three refugee families on his flight back to Rome.
Pope Francis’ appeals and concrete actions tell the world that it is feasible to offer real help to refugees, said Jesuit Father Thomas Smolich, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service.
Leaders and everyday people “get a pretty good model” from Pope Francis about the Catholic and humanitarian duty of welcoming, advocating for and assisting refugees, Father Smolich told Catholic News Service 20 June.
“I would encourage people, especially on World Refugee Day, to contact the part of the church that works with refugees,” for example, Catholic Charities in the United States or Jesuit Refugee Service in Europe, he said, or ask and find out who else is helping in their community.
“There are so many things to do,” he said, such as visiting refugees, helping with free meals, doing advocacy work, becoming part of a long-term coordinated effort or just helping out when time allows. “The possibilities are endless.”
“People are doing this” in spite of what some political leaders say, he said, “so it is a question of bringing it to light” and inspiring more people to help rather than be paralyzed by fear.
While many fears can be legitimate, “fear often translates into anxiety,” which “warps our understanding” of what is really happening and what can be done, he said.
Becoming familiar with or getting to know “real people who share our fears,” but have experienced the difficulties of having to flee their homes, the Jesuit said, helps change the discussion from being centered on “‘What am I afraid of’ to ‘How can we build solidarity?’”
While global estimates say more than 60 million people are fleeing violence, conflict or persecution, the best way to digest such a statistic is “to meet people one-on-one or hear them speak” so they don’t remain an abstract number, the priest said.
JRS was urging people to meet with refugees or watch interviews on the JRS YouTube channel in order “to enable refugees to speak out about their hopes, their future” and help others learn about their lives, Father Smolich said.
Similarly, the International Catholic Migration Commission was commemorating World Refugee Day by sharing stories from resettled refugees around the world “as a witness to their strength and determination despite the hardship they have endured,” the commission said.
It said it hoped the stories would encourage those still on the move and call attention to the benefits refugees bring to host countries.
People were also invited during the Year of Mercy to continue sending messages of hope on social media using the #HandsOfMercy hashtag and share personal stories with #StoryOfMercy or #WithRefugees.