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World 'less welcoming to refugees'

Jesuit presents book on how religion, ethics can shape refugee responses

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Rhina Guidos, Catholic News Service

Updated: May 20, 2020 08:35 AM GMT
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World 'less welcoming to refugees'

Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar enter Bangladesh after fleeing a military crackdown in Rakhine state on Sept. 30, 2017. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

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As the global number of refugees is at an all-time high of more than 70 million, the world has become a less welcoming place for many of them, said Jesuit Father David Hollenbach during a May 19 launch of his book "Humanity in Crisis: How Ethics and Religion Shape Policy Responses to Refugees" via Zoom video.

But faith-based communities, including many Catholic organizations, have set an example in how to respond, with compassion and justice, to the crisis, said Father Hollenbach, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC.

Faith-based organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and Islamic Relief, have helped with resettlement efforts, offering refugees hope in situations that could lead to despair, offering nourishment, recognizing refugees' human dignity and reaching across religious as well as nonreligious boundaries to help.

However, referencing the "Humanity in Crisis" title of his book, he said society globally is facing "a kind of shattering" of the common humanity that binds us together and the human family has become one that is "building walls," even against the vulnerable.

"To keep people out ... that fractures our common or shared humanity and that's also a very severe crisis we face in the world," he said.

The event, livestreamed by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown, addressed how caring for refugees is central to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. That's because each faith tradition "has roots in migration and displacement."

Joseph and Mary, for example, fled from persecution by King Herod "across an international border between Palestine and Egypt," said Father Hollenbach.

"Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees by definition," he said, and so Christians recognize that salvation involves tending to the poor, to refugees and that "when you feed the hungry, homeless, you're in fact responding to Christ."

But that fundamental belief has come under attack as nationalism and other forms of exclusion have eroded the values of serving others, particularly the most vulnerable, he said. Attempting to exclude the vulnerable, denying them the capacity to seek safety or sending them back to a situation where you put their lives in grave danger is "a violation of our common humanity that should be bringing us together," he said. 

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says all people have a right to life, to a homeland to adequate nutrition, health care and a right to seek asylum, he said. And although national borders remain important, "national borders do not override our common humanity," particularly when someone is in great need, when we have the capability to help, and when we can help without disproportionate burden to ourselves, he said.

"We have duties that reach across borders," he said.

Speakers such as Clemens Sedmak, professor of social ethics at University of Notre Dame, who participated in the online event, asked whether the world would have to "rethink the common good" in a moment of crisis, particularly the present moment of dealing with a pandemic. 

"What I think I can observe now with the Covid-19 crisis is a movement inward," Sedmark said. "So, a new nationalism and this sense of individuals trying to protect their own livelihoods, over and against others, how do we endure solidarity in crisis?"

Like global environmental challenges, the displacement of people because of conflict, and now a global disease will also need to be dealt with keeping the common good in mind because a problem for one person, is a problem for all people, said Father Hollenbach.

"Covid-19 is obviously an example of where the common good is at stake. If we can get rid of Covid-19 in the United States, but it remains strong in places like Nigeria or Central America, it's going to be back in the United States," he said. "There's no way this disease can be confined to one country and the refugee displacement situation is like that."

The world will have to reimagine current structures and ways of responding, he said.

"It's not a small project. We're looking at a very major initiative about rethinking of some of the structures of international order today," he said. 

Faith-based organizations, long accustomed to global events, are poised to help, the Jesuit added.

"Faith communities are transnational communities to begin with," he said. "Christianity reaches across borders. Judaism reaches across borders. Islam reaches across borders. Faith communities have a strong awareness of international and transnational threat, that's why ... they know what it means to reach across borders and to respond with compassion and justice."

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