European Christians respond to refugee crisis

September 9, 2015
European Christians respond to refugee crisis

On Sunday, as the European refugee crisis continued to dominate headlines, Pope Francis delivered what was, for many, an overdue but appreciated response. Reminding listeners that “the Gospel calls us to be close to the smallest and to those who have been abandoned,” the Pope, quoted in the New York Times, urged all Catholics to welcome refugees with open arms. Yet observers note that Francis’ approach is a far cry from some conservative Christian politicians who prioritize protecting borders over assisting refugees, the majority of them fleeing violence in Syria and Iraq.

Isla Binnie at Reuters notes that, specifically, Francis called for each Catholic parish or monastery to host a refugee family, and promised that the Vatican’s own two parishes would do so—a request that, if honored, would provide housing for tens of thousands. In a separate letter this week, he seemingly rebuked countries with hardline migrant policies, such as Hungary, writing

It is violence to build walls and barriers to stop those who look for a place of peace. It is violence to push back those who flee inhuman conditions in the hope of a better future.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has promoted the construction of a fence on the Serbian border, intended to deter migrants. Orban has attracted criticism for his handling of the thousands of refugees flowing through en route to Germany, many of whom were not permitted to leave Hungary until the government’s sudden decision to let 10,000 journey on to Austria, where they were warmly greeted by volunteers.

The friendliness migrants encountered at the Hungarian-Austrian border, however, represents only half the story of Christian groups’ response to the crisis. As The Economist details, the Catholic Church’s welcome and aid work is at odds with many conservative, nationalistic parties’ fears. The magazine describes politicians “beating the drum of nativism; they have redoubled their warnings about the threat to Europe’s long-established religious culture.” Movements such as the anti-Islam Pegida, in Germany, have attracted followers to large demonstrations—including at least one priest, who was rebuked by his bishop.

Yet another question facing European Christians is what, if any, preference to give to co-religionists escaping persecution. Slovakian Interior Ministry representative Ivan Netik is quoted in the Washington Post claiming that Slovakia will only accept Christian refugees: “We don’t have any mosques in Slovakia, so how can Muslims be integrated if they are not going to like it here?” The Guardian reports that French Prime Minister Manuel Valls criticized two mayors who stated that their cities would also only allow in Christians.

Yves Nicolin, mayor of Roanne, in the Loire department, said his town would only take in Christians in order to be “certain they are not terrorists in disguise”. Roanne would settle “a dozen families, providing they are Christian refugees who are persecuted in Syria by Daesh (the Islamic State group) for being Christians”, he said.

AP writer Kirsten Grieshaber reports that hundreds of migrants from Iran and Afghanistan have converted to Christianity after arriving in Germany, and that some fellow migrants allege they have done so to improve their asylum applications. Although Germany gives no priority to Christian applicants, these converts could argue that being deported home would put them in danger of persecution. In recent years, fewer than half have won the right to stay.