UCA News

Order of Malta honors Australian Jesuit

Bangkok-based Father Michael Kelly recognized for his efforts to help Pakistani Christians resettle in third countries
Order of Malta honors Australian Jesuit

The Sovereign Order of Malta's ambassador to Thailand, His Excellency Michael Mann (right), presents Father Michael Kelly SJ with the Grand Cross 'pro piis meritis' pro Merito Melitensi on Jan. 25. (Photo supplied)

Published: January 27, 2020 05:58 AM GMT
Updated: January 27, 2020 06:01 AM GMT

The Sovereign Order of Malta has recognized an Australian Jesuit priest in Thailand for his efforts to get Pakistani Christian refugees in the kingdom resettled in third countries.

On Jan. 25, the Order’s ambassador to Thailand, His Excellency Michael Mann, presented Father Michael Kelly SJ with the Grand Cross “pro piis meritis” pro Merito Melitensi.

Established in 1920, the Knightly Order pro Merito Melitensi is given in recognition of those activities that have conferred honor and prestige on the Sovereign Order of Malta. “Pro piis meritis” awards are specifically for clergy.

“It is in recognition of Father Kelly’s own physical as well as moral support for displaced people, something which is at the heart of the work of the Order. Father Kelly has been working with the embassy of the Sovereign Order of Malta for many years to help these wonderful people meet their immediate health needs and, importantly, to find them safety and a future in third countries," Mann said.

"His ministry is a fine example of what the Holy Father asked us all to do during his very recent visit to Thailand when he said, 'Today, more than ever, our societies need ‘artisans of hospitality’, men and women who take care of the undivided development of all peoples within a compassionate family, who commit to living in justice, solidarity and fraternal harmony,'” Mann said.

The Order of Malta Global Fund for Forgotten People and many individuals have very generously provided funds to help Pakistani Christians in Bangkok.

Over the past five years, Father Kelly has been advocating for refugee rights and working to resettle hundreds of refugee families in Bangkok.

More than 500 Pakistani Christian refugee families fled their country due to religious persecution by Islamic groups, who often threatened them with death for practicing their faith. These Christian families are also subjected at will to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws against the Prophet Mohammad and the Quran.

Not all those Father Kelly helps in Bangkok are Pakistani Christians. Some are Ahmadi and Shia Muslim families from Pakistan, some are Hindu Tamil Sri Lankans, while others are Christians from Iran, Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia.

All are being helped by Father Kelly with aid from church organizations such as the Order of Malta, Jesuit Mission Australia and various dioceses to help these families resettle in Europe, Canada and Australia.

Already over 140 refugees and asylum seekers have been resettled and another 400 are on their way to being resettled.

Father Kelly, who is the English-language publisher of La Croix International, stumbled “by accident” into this ministry of helping refugees. 

Five years ago, he was asked by an Australian Jesuit missionary in Pakistan to help a young Catholic flee to Thailand. The young Catholic man had received death threats from Islamic militants for working with youth.

That opened an entire new avenue of helping such families in Bangkok, both in terms of financial support for rent and food as well as help to deal with the red tape and very detailed forms needed to apply for resettlement in various countries.

Many of these Pakistani Christian families know only their mother tongue Urdu, said Father Kelly, explaining that they often fail the UNHCR tests because they present documentary evidence — even fatwas against them — in Urdu, not English.

“About two-thirds of the people I know have been rejected in their claim for refugee status,” he said.

There are presently some 2,500 men, women and children in Bangkok who don’t have UNHCR conferred refugee status and are not able to work.

They live silently, locked up in tiny five-by-six-meter one-bed apartments that often accommodate five or six people. Worse still, they live in constant fear of being raided by the immigration police.

Only recently a 16-year-old Christian refugee boy jumped from the window of his room on the third floor to avoid being taken by the raiding immigration police to a detention center. Fortunately, that jump was not fatal but it shattered his right leg.

“The greatest help I can give them is hope … hope of being able to get out of this open prison called Bangkok,” Father Kelly said.

Joseph Masih, a Pakistani refugee in Bangkok for the past seven years, who awaits being resettled “anywhere that is safe where I do not have to live in constant fear and where my children can go to school,” is ecstatic that the Order of Malta has chosen to recognize Father Kelly.

“We are not related to Father Kelly, yet Father Michael loves us and spends time listening to us. He understands us and works to find us a safe place to live. No one else cares whether we live or die,” said Masih.

He added his thanks to the Order of Malta for the award to Father Kelly. His explanation is simple. “We have nothing to award Father Kelly with for what he is doing for us. The Order of Malta has done it for us,” he said.

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