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Truthdigger of the Week: Pope Francis, a Voice of Humanity in the Refugee Crisis

Posted on Sep 12, 2015

By Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

This week saw the crystallization of two attitudes toward the crisis rivening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to Europe from parts of the Middle East and Africa made uninhabitable by war stoked or created by the meddling of Western governments led by the United States. In an exemplification of one, a Hungarian camerawoman for a nationalist news station associated with her country’s extreme conservative party intentionally trips a man fleeing police in an open field with a child in his arms. In another, the leader of a global religion notorious for preaching a narrow brand of love and mercy directs the faithful to give shelter in their churches and homes to desperate escapees from war.

In the coming months or years, until the wars are over or the refugees are peaceably settled, these views will struggle against one another for the power to shape European society: Will Europeans extend to strangers from abroad their expressed values of “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law” and “human rights”? Or will they adopt a mentality of extreme conservatism that says Europe must, for political and economic reasons, shut out the needy?

On a continent with 11 million empty homes, and with carbon-induced agricultural collapse a future contingency rather than an imminent certainty, the conservative claim remains to be demonstrated, and the burden of proof rests on those who fill our ears and news feeds with their shaky arguments. What morality demands, however, is indisputable. People suffering hunger, illness, pain, anxiety and other dire conditions should be given every aid available, and those who live relatively comfortably should endure the mere (but often intensely rewarding) discomfort of providing it.

Pope Francis, who has excited leftists with his progressive interpretations of Roman Catholic doctrine, has emerged as the unequivocal public champion of the moral imperative in this crisis. “Dear brothers and sisters, God’s mercy is recognized through our actions,” Francis told thousands of people gathered in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square earlier this month. “Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death from war and hunger, and who are on the road in hope of a better life, the Gospel calls us and asks us to show solidarity to the smallest and the abandoned and to give them real hope. … I appeal to the parishes, the religious communities, the monasteries and sanctuaries of all Europe to show the true meaning of the Gospel and take in one family of refugees.” 

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“I speak to my brothers, the bishops of Europe, true shepherds,” Francis continued, “that in their dioceses they support this appeal of mine, remembering that mercy is the second name of love.” Two families would be taken in by the Vatican, he said.

On Wednesday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on member states to revise their immigration policies to allow for the settlement of 160,000 refugees within the European Union’s borders. International responses to the announcement were tepid. The prime minister of Turkey, which has made enormous sacrifices in receiving more than 2 million refugees from Iraq and Syria, called the proposal “ridiculous.” British leaders reiterated their determination not to be bound by quotas imposed by the commission, and President Obama decided he could raise the number of Syrian migrants allowed in the U.S. from 1,500 to 10,000 over the next year—a welcome move but far too little to have much benefit in a problem of this size, and nothing compared to the more than than 800,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, mostly Vietnamese, the United States accepted after the end of the Vietnam War.

Late last month, however, 10,000 Icelanders volunteered, independently of their government, to open their homes to Syrian refugees. And in Hungary, the camerawoman who toppled the man and child fleeing police was fired.

Worldwide, the number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people counted by the United Nations is nearly 60 million, a record going back more than 60 years. The number of bodies of drowned migrants washing up on Mediterranean shores have been increasing for years, and the urgency now being expressed in secular and religious community centers and parliaments, precipitated in large part by a single photo of a 3-year-old Syrian boy lying dead on a Turkish beach, suggests that huge numbers of people are ready to be more generous to refugees being driven from their homes across the globe.

Whether that feeling will bear fruit will be decided in part by governments that have the means to act. Saturday morning’s election of socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn to head the British Labour Party is one of a few developments that offer hope for the prospect of an upcoming generation of leaders who see the fates of people worldwide as irrevocably linked and will act to reverse policies that generate humanitarian crises. By urging the world’s Catholics to shelter people fleeing death and poverty now, Pope Francis has made immediate relief possible for some and created a standard for action by which other leaders will be judged in time to come. He is our Truthdigger of the Week.


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