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For the displaced, laughter is a luxury

Will the Malaysian church ignore the pope's message about impoverished migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers?

For the displaced, laughter is a luxury

A file image of illegal Bangladeshi migrant Jahangir Hussain who looks out of a police van at the police headquarters in Langkawi on May 11, 2015 after landing on Malaysian shores earlier that day. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia

June 16, 2017

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One of the greatest tragedies affecting our world today is that millions of people are forced to flee from poverty and violence in their own countries.

Malaysia is one of several richer nations hosting vast numbers of displaced people, including impoverished migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers.

The beautiful Southeast Asian nation is steeped in migrant history with a diverse, multi-ethnic and multi-religious population. However, a toxic, anti-foreigner atmosphere has developed in recent years.

Discriminated against, abused and exploited, the new arrivals are at the mercy of both the authorities and the general populace. How did it come to this?

Malaysia has a complex, government-supported social structure that is perceived by some to dish out privileges too easily and discriminate against its own citizens. The status quo has come to be accepted by its multicultural population.

Thrown into this mix are the newcomers who have found themselves at the bottom of the country's social ladder and looking up.

In a country that has historically convulsed at any racial or religious discord, certain fissures are appearing within the social makeup of the nation that enable intolerance. Politicians and nationalists regularly beat a jingoist drum, for example. Meanwhile, harsh public discourse encourages intolerance toward "the outsiders."

How does the Catholic Church, which has built its reputation on its provision of education, social care and tolerance, fit into this scenario? And how have the clergy and the faithful reacted to Pope Francis' call to Catholics to protect and assist those in need?

The answer is discouraging. Many Malaysians respond with ambivalence to his message of compassion. Some even say he is out of touch with reality. Pastoral workers and members of the clergy have played a prominent role in assisting migrants and campaigning for equality. Sadly, they report they often encounter indifference or, even worse, hostility toward their efforts.

If there is only a fraction of truth to this analysis, then the Catholic Church in Malaysia is failing to lead and practice what the pope preaches.

Immigrants, particularly the most vulnerable, undocumented refugees, must always be a primary concern for the church. It is these new arrivals who are aliens in a foreign land, who are susceptible to exploitation and abuse with little protection from the law of the land.

With practically no public voice, they are silent and often accept the difficult conditions, without complaint, in exchange for the few scraps they can earn for their family.

The well-known saying, "to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable" might be an appropriate job description for the church if it wishes to remain relevant when faced with a changing world and harsher attitudes.

There is a pertinent story of Frederic Ozanam (founder of the Society of Vincent de Paul) and his friends who started a group called the Society of Good Studies. Their project encouraged lively discussions among students. Their attention turned frequently to the social teachings of the Gospel and the church. During one such debate, someone cynically probed, "What is your church doing now? What is it doing for the poor? Show us your works and we will believe you!"

The church in Malaysia must remove itself from the comfortable couch it seems to be resting in and into the muddy street as Pope Francis puts it. Only then can it become a credible sign of what it preaches as a sign of real consolation and hope in the same way, for example, Mother Teresa was — bringing hope to the places where life is continuous drudgery and laughter is a luxury.

To justify its existence the church must involve itself with the joys, suffering and pain, hopes and dreams, the loneliness of the abandoned. In other words, it must be on the side of the people who have no voice and who are exploited or discriminated against by the corrupt. Silence is not an option.

The Catholic social teaching is that every person is entitled to basic human rights and to have those needs met so to preserve his or her human dignity, including food, shelter, clothing, education and medical care.

The church shoulders the duty to catechize and form the faithful to become a community that cares for and protects the common good. It is up to bishops and priests (as pastors) to pose thought-provoking questions to the congregation regarding the care of those who are neglected and deprived of a share in what they justly deserve for the work they do.

Many of the congregation may even work with or employ immigrants. How do they treat them? Humanely? Are they paid a just wage? Are their rights to rest and recreation respected? Is attention given to the fact that many live with the grief of being separated from their children?

It is heartening to hear it said that the Malaysian Catholic Church has embraced Pope Francis' appeal "to reawaken our consciences" on the plight of migrant workers and displaced people.

A disturbed conscience is one thing. An awakening that motivates one to act justly towards all.

If the church becomes complacent and makes the wrong choice, it may end up being disconnected. We will stop being truly Christian in our mission, which is to call on all of God's children to live together in a mutually respectful relationship.

In order to be retain relevance in the modern world, the church needs to become, once again, the place where it can humbly say: "The alien has not lodged outside, for I have opened my doors to the traveler." (Job 31:32).

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