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Pope Francis Timely Moral Challenge to the European Union Pope Francis Timely Moral Challenge to the European Union
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-04-19 09:14:36
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On Saturday April 16, 2016 Pope Francis is journeyng to the Greek island of Moria to visit a refugee camp where 3,060 men women and children have been detained as soon as they made landfall from across the sea and are now due to be deported back to the instability and violence they left behind, thus shattering their dream of a permanent home in a safe EU country.

The Pope will cross the barbed-wire threshold that wall the refugees and join them for lunch. The visit will last only five hours. In addition to eating lunch with the migrants at Moria, Francis is expected to lead a public prayer in the island’s main harbor, and to publicly thank Lesbos residents for their hospitality. He and his fellow religious leaders will drop laurel wreathes in the sea as a memorial to those who have died making the perilous crossing.

It is far from clear that European leaders, satisfied by the falling arrival numbers that their policy has generated, will respond to the pope’s attempts at suasion, but his arrival will present them with an unmistakable moral challenge. If they don’t respond they will begin to look more and more like hypocrites.

By visiting Moria, and by breaking bread with people Europe is threatening to deport, the leader of the Catholic Church will be making his strongest statement yet on migrant rights, an issue he has made one of the biggest focuses of his revolutionary tenure. In many respects, the Lesbos trip is part of a legacy in the making, further evidence that the pontiff is seeking to define his papacy on the issues of inequality, mercy and migrant rights.

In his first official trip as pontiff, in 2013, Francis highlighted the plight of refugees by hopping on a flight to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Back then, at the early stages of the migrant crisis, Italy was the primary entry point for migrants funneling into Europe. Shortly before his trip, a horrific shipwreck off the Libyan coast had left hundreds dead.

Last year, as the crisis escalated and the entry point shifted from Italy to Greece, Francis issued dramatic appeals to Europe’s Catholics, asking every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to take in one refugee family. His call came as some of the region’s leaders, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, were warning that “waves of mostly Muslim refugees would change the face of ‘Christian’ Europe.” Orban seemed to be advocating a new iron curtain, the building of fortress Europe, of walls rather than bridges. Here, shamelessly, for the world to see, is the universal Christian Gospel message of offering shelter to refugees and strangers in need as a distinct Christian duty, turned up-side-down and made a mockery of by turning into a rationalization for ethnic and nationalistic chauvinism of the worst kind.

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Viktor Orban

To the contrary, in official visits, from Mexico to southern Italy, Francis has championed immigrants and migrants, calling the need to aid them, no matter their faith, a duty of all Christians. As recently as last month, even as Europe was closing its door, he seemed to make a political statement by washing the feet of migrants during Holy Week celebrations.

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March 24, 2016, the Pope performs a foot-washing ritual at the Castelnuovo refugee center near Rome.

On Saturday, the pope will undoubtedly speak out against Europe’s policies from the very harbor where people are being deported. He will do so even as an epic debate continues throughout the whole of Europe: What do you do about an historic number of people displaced by conflict, more than a million of whom sought sanctuary in Europe last year? Last month, Europe abruptly shut down the pipeline, announcing that not only would people be barred from traveling onward from Greece, but all new arrivals would also be shipped back to Turkey. It made good on its threat, sending 325 people back across the sea — despite protestations from human rights groups, and from Pope Francis. And here verbatim is the Pope exhortation: “Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees — fleeing death by war and famine and journeying towards the hope of life — the Gospel calls, asking of us to be close to the smallest and forsaken, to give them a concrete hope.”

But Europe’s leaders have shown little interest in reversing course. European Council President Donald Tusk acknowledged this week that he had “doubts of an ethical nature” about the deportation plan but defended it as necessary “to prevent a political catastrophe,” never mind the moral catastrophe. He pointed out that in January there had been 70,000 new arrivals — a pace that has dropped precipitously since Europe began to block the path.

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Donald Tusk

But rights advocates say it is disgraceful that Europe is turning away people in obvious need of protection, and they hope Francis’s visit can begin a reconsideration, to share the responsibility as a confederation that it claims to be, instead of leaving Greece to handle it on its own. Island residents have been consistently welcoming even when the arrivals surpassed the island’s population.

The Pope’s visit will be a chance for the EU to remember the values on which its founding fathers built the union, predominantly Christian values.  At a time when xenophobia is on the rise and the call for a renewal of the original European values is on the ascendancy, it is time that the EU remind itself that it was built on human rights, tolerance diversity, and the concept of multi-culturalism. Most of its founding fathers were in fact practicing Christians, not spiritualists or cafeteria style Christians who choose their ethics depending on the day of the week.

When queried on the motivation of their compassion residents of the island of Lesbos  reply that their compassion and empathy comes naturally — many are descended from people who fled Turkey in the 1920s. This is exactly the Bible’s message: “ show mercy and remember that you too were once refugees in the land of Egypt.”

And this is another secondary initiative of Pope Francis. Most island residents are Orthodox, not Catholic; there is only 300 catholics who have generously opened their hearts to the refugees with their fellow Orthodox Christians. As a sign of reconciliation within the Christian faith — the pope will be accompanied Saturday by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, as well as by Greek Archbishop Ieronymos. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will also take part.

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Pope Francis and Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch Batholomew I

No doubt about it, the pope’s Lesbos visit will offer a clear message to Europe and its leaders, one they may not welcome but with which they’ll have to deal in one way or the other. We can expect the usual protestations and blusters from the religiously challenged and biased, about the pope being naive and how each country has to decide what’s in its best interest, never mind the EU, but admitting that I do not have statistics handy, I dare say, nevertheless, that the vast majority of people will know he’s right and that Europeans will in the future look back on this episode with deep shame and regret. We didn’t take the Jews in 1930s, and that includes the US which turned back a whole ship of thousand of Jewish refugees which had entered a Florida port, because they were too many and too different; now we refuse to take Muslims for the same reason. Perhaps it would be less hypocritical to stop claiming Christian values and a Christian Europe, and go back to the good old pagan ways of the empire building warrior class. The Romans had a saying that applies perfectly: “corruptio optima pessima” which translates as “the corruption of the best is always the worst kind.”

 


       
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