Europe’s Christian Response to the Influx of Immigrants

COMMENTARY: More than 350,000 migrants have arrived at the European Union’s borders between January and August.

Refugees at Budapest’s Keleti railway station on Sept. 4, 2015.
Refugees at Budapest’s Keleti railway station on Sept. 4, 2015. (photo: Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 2.0/Rebecca Harms)

Pope Francis last Sunday issued a surprise appeal for every Catholic parish and community in Europe to take in a refugee family. His call came at the end of a remarkable week, in which Europe’s immigration policy collapsed under the weight of the biggest mass influx of refugees since the Second World War.

The numbers are formidable. More than 350,000 migrants arrived at the European Union’s borders between January and August this year. Numbers applying for asylum in 2014 were more than 600,000, mostly from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan — more than twice the number in 2011. Numbers are increasing exponentially, with 100,000 arriving in July alone, many on precarious boats and rafts supplied by unscrupulous people-traffickers.

It was also a week in which it was clear that a single photograph still has the power to cause governments to change course.

The image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy dressed in jeans and sports shoes lying dead in the sand of a Turkish beach caused a storm on social media and turned the political tide. Political leaders who had been treating the crisis as an immigration matter, and therefore one of border security, found themselves caught off guard by a wave of sympathy for Aylan Kurdi and his elder brother, 5-year-old Galip.

Like tens of thousands of other Syrians, the boys were fleeing the terrors of war on flimsy boats, aiming for Kos in Egypt; after their boat capsized, the boy’s father swam ashore but could not find his children. The sight of Aylan’s little corpse being tenderly carried in the arms of a Turkish policeman triggered a wave of compassion. The question was no longer, “How do we keep them out?” but “What can we do?”

Among those caught out by the public mood was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who the previous day had insisted that the crisis would not be resolved by taking “more and more refugees.” Like other European leaders, he has long been responding to popular concern about waves of Eastern European migrants and skepticism about non-Europeans applying for refugee status. Faced with rising anti-immigration political sentiment, his strategy has been to reassure people that the borders are well policed, while providing large amounts of aid to refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

But while European popular sentiment has been in favor of lowering immigration numbers and is in general skeptical about refugees, it is also capable of a compassionate response to real need. Seeing the thousands of Syrians on the move from Greece to Germany via Turkey and Hungary, people clearly recognized a humanitarian crisis.

The two main Christian leaders in Britain — Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Winchester and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby — added to the pressure on Cameron in calling for an urgent and compassionate response, and a coordinated Europeans agreement for sharing the burden.

Cardinal Nichols said it was a “disgrace” that a wealthy Europe was standing by while people washed up on its beaches. “People are beginning to see the human face of this suffering, so it’s no longer an abstract problem of people who are on the scrounge,” he said on TV news. “It’s people who are desperate for the sake of their families, their elderly, their youngsters, their children, and the more we see that, the more the opportunity for a political response that’s a bit more generous is growing.”

Cameron backtracked, promising to take more than 15,000 refugees, even as Germany — which has so far responded the most generously — said it would take at least 40,000 more. France says it will take 25,000. In total, plans are being laid by European nations to take between them some 160,000 people this year, as numbers continued to surge.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday that the “breathtaking” flow of migrants into Germany will “occupy and change” the country in the next years.

The crisis has pushed the Catholic Church to the front lines as a consistent advocate of a generous and compassionate response by both states and communities. Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of the Italian bishops’ conference, stressed this was a humanitarian matter. When “thousands of people, human beings, men, women, children, face death trips to escape their countries for reasons we all know, we can only conclude that this problem is a human emergency, a human tragedy,” he said last month.

At a memorial service in Vienna for the 71 migrants found suffocated in an abandoned truck, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna said on Aug. 31 it was time “to emerge from our lethargy and to resolutely face what is without doubt the greatest humanitarian challenge for Europe in decades.” This week, he said the Church in Austria will house at least 1,000 refugees. 

Hungary, a major transit point for migrants heading to Germany via the Balkans, was last week the scene of tens of thousands of refugees occupying the bridges and train stations of Budapest. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said Europe would be “lost” if it let all the migrants in and that he had no desire to live alongside a large Muslim community.

But, despite the misgivings of Cardinal Peter Erdö, who worried that taking in refugees would abet human trafficking, Hungary has proved exceptional. The notion that Christianity would be threatened or diluted by a large influx of Muslim refugees has not been heard from European church leaders. The prevailing sentiment in the Church so far is that Europe cannot be Christian if it turns its back on strangers in desperate need.

Even in Hungary, Archabbot Asztrik Várszegi, head of one of the country’s oldest landmarks, the Benedictine Archabbey in Pannonhalmahas, has ordered that any refugees arriving to the Benedictine monastery must be taken in and cared for.

He said, “We cannot leave anyone outside, because doing so would contradict the Gospel.”

Austen Ivereigh, co-founder of Catholic Voices, is the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope (2014, Henry Holt).