Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in March 2011, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict between the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, equally brutal jihadist groups such as ISIS, and other rebel groups opposed to Assad’s rule. As is all too often the case, those who have paid the highest price in this war have been innocent civilians, who just want a chance at a decent life for themselves and their families, free from the daily fear of violence, persecution, torture, and death. As four-fifths of the population have descended into poverty, and basic institutions like education and health services have collapsed, four million people have fled the country, with 7.6 million more displaced from their homes within Syria’s borders.
Many refugees from Syria have ended up in neighboring countries, but an increasing number are making often dangerous journeys to reach Europe. Many have not survived the journey. European governments are divided about how to accommodate the influx of refugees, with Germany so far taking the most welcoming approach — the country expects to accept 800,000 migrants this year. In stark contrast, Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister and government have made it very difficult for refugees to enter — or even pass through on their way elsewhere.
In the midst of this long-brewing crisis, Pope Francis has changed the conversation, as he so often does. During his Sunday address this week, he asked every Catholic parish and monastery in Europe to accept one family “that has fled death from war and hunger.” If every parish were to follow the pope’s call, between 360,000 and 500,000 refugees could be accommodated. Even before the pope’s call to action, many ordinary European citizens have been rising generously to the moment, volunteering to take refugee families into their own homes and helping migrants get through Hungary and into Austria.
It is one of the few hopeful stories emerging from this crisis.
What is happening in Europe makes me think about our own country’s hopelessly broken immigration system. There are uncomfortable parallels in the two situations. Like the Syrian refugees, many Central American men, women, and children have fled the violence and poverty of countries like El Salvador and Guatemala in search of safety and a better life in the United States. Like too many of the migrants fleeing to Europe, many Central American and Mexican immigrants have endured dangerous and sometimes deadly journeys in order to get here.
Many on both sides of the Atlantic have been victimized by unscrupulous human traffickers and others, whose callous negligence too often leads to tragedy — whether it is on an Austrian highway, on the waves of the Mediterranean Sea, or in the Rio Grande Valley. And in both Europe and the United States, there is a hard core of mostly white citizens, even Christians, who are bitterly opposed to a more welcoming immigration policy, citing reasons ranging from tougher competition for jobs to a fear of losing their majority cultural, ethnic, or religious status.
Matthew 25 teaches us that how we welcome the stranger into our midst is literally how we treat Christ himself. So the response by Christians here and in Europe must become more in line with the welcoming tone of hospitality called for by Pope Francis. Today, in that spirit and in recognition of the pope’s impending visit, a broad coalition of allies representing both secular and religious organizations released a Unity Statement, rededicating ourselves to the fight to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We are calling for a national day of prayer for immigrant families, Congress, and for our nation to take place on Sept. 24, in conjunction with the pope’s visit. We are urging people of all faiths, and all people of conscience, to join us in this prayer and reflection, and to join us in the fight to finally fix a broken system.
The pope’s teachings and his deeds have inspired people to put aside their differences and to work together for a common good. We hope that this momentum will carry over to the debates on immigration. We must work together to push back against the hateful anti-immigrant messaging coming from some of our elected officials and candidates for office, and draw on the moral high ground we find in our faith and Scriptures. Including Matthew 25.
Beyond the need for broad-based legislative reform, ordinary people and communities of faith in the United States can also make a difference on an individual and family level. Just as the pope has called on European Catholic churches to “welcome the stranger” in their own parishes and homes, American churches, synagogues, mosques, and even individual homes should take up that challenge as well. It’s time for people in the United States and Europe to learn what it really means to welcome the stranger.