Welcoming the stranger

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." (Matthew 25:40)
Erbil's Children: Syrian Refugees in Urban Iraq. Three young Syrian girls play in a rundown area of Erbil. The six-year-old in the middle lives with her family in a partially-constructed home. They fled from Syria after a tank entered their neighbourhood and began firing at houses. Photo: UNHCR/B. Sokol

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

The most enduring image that dominated our consciousness over this past month was that of Aylan Kurdi, a 3-year-old who drowned as his family tried to flee from Kobani to Europe. It has been a wake up call to many governments around the world about the disastrous situation in the Middle East as conflict continues unabated in both Iraq and Syria, and the humanitarian issue around millions of refugees.

In the week following the image of Aylan appearing in our newspapers and on television, a number of rallies were held around Australia calling the federal government to increase the number of refugees coming to Australia, and in particular those who have fled from Syria. Archbishop Anthony Fisher has also called on the government to give priority to Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria who have no hope of remaining in whatever is left of Iraq and Syria and the end of the conflict.

We are only too well aware of the plight of Christians at the hands of Daesh and other terrorists groups. Sadly, it would seem that after a two thousand year presence in the ancient lands of the Bible that the Christian population will be reduced to a rump or maybe even extinguished altogether.

Late last year, three Bishops from the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference went on a special mission to the Middle East under the guidance of Bishop Antoine Tarabay, the Australian Maronite Bishop. They visited a number of displaced Christian families from Iraq and Syria currently dwelling in Lebanon, and the report to the May Conference of the Bishops this year was both enlightening and disturbing.

The question of refugees has also been a centre piece of the declaration of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference in their social justice statement for this year, For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas – Justice for Refugees and Asylum Seekers. In summary, released for last Sunday 27 September, it says:

The Statement takes its inspiration from the actions and words of Pope Francis on his 2013 visit to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he met the survivors of a refugee tragedy and mourned for those who had died. It begins and ends with the Pope’s own words and is strongly based on the Scriptures and Catholic teaching. The Bishops’ document traces the experiences of asylum seekers from their flight from persecution and danger, through their perilous journeys, to their experience in Australia of indefinite detention, deprivation and insecurity. It asks why both sides of Australian politics have felt the need to introduce such cruel and self-defeating policies as offshore processing and indefinite detention.

With a new focus on the subject of refugees, it might well be the circuit breaker to remove the stigma associated with those fleeing by whatever means they can to provide safety and stability for their families and a better way of life. There is little question that Australia has the capacity to do more. We are by world standards a very wealthy and prosperous country. Whilst it is true we face challenges in terms of our social and economic direction, we are nevertheless well placed to offer a home and a place of refuge for those in desperate need. Earlier last month, Pope Francis requested every Catholic parish in Europe to accept and care for at least one refugee family. As he so frequently does, the Pope does not just speak words but also matches that by practical action. It is heartening that so many Catholic people are generous in their support of refugees and asylum seekers through the various agencies of the Church. I am also aware that some parishes have taken initiatives at the local level to reach out to “those who’ve come across the seas.”

I am also aware that there are parishioners in the Diocese who were refugees and have now found a home here in Australia. No doubt, they can very much identify with the pain and bewilderment of those forced to flee their homeland, and perhaps the recent images have brought back memories of their own journey.

The images of refugees this past month have been confronting, and often, if you are like me, you feel a sense of powerlessness in the face of such numbers. Yet, we can respond each in our own way and in doing so we are simply responding to the Gospel imperative:

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:34-40)

With my prayers,

Very Rev Peter G Williams

Diocesan Administrator

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