CATHOLICS in Australia and around the world should lead the way in welcoming and defending the dignity of asylum seekers, a new document issued by the Vatican says.
The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, together with Cor Unum, published the document, “Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons: Pastoral Guidelines”, on June 6.
“Catholic laity have an obligation to root out traces of xenophobia in their hearts and recognise refugees as their brothers and sisters – children of God whose dignity must be protected,” it said.
Local and national commentators on Australia’s attitude to asylum seekers welcomed the new document.
Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office (ACMRO) national director Scalabrinian Father Maurizio Pettenà, just returned from Rome where he had been consultor to the pontifical council, said “the document is particularly timely in (Australia’s) election year where both major parties appear intent on dehumanising asylum seekers for political gain”.
Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive officer Peter Arndt said asylum seekers arriving in Australia “are being rejected out of hand with little or no understanding of the asylum seekers’ personal stories of persecution and struggle”.
“We, in the commission, have worked with many refugees in the community and in the local detention centre and have learned about the trauma so many of them have faced,” he said.
Volunteer at Woolloongabba’s Romero Centre and refugee advocate for many years Frederika Steen said “unlike most countries, Australia stands out as totally focused on deterring asylum seekers who come by boat, even if they really are escaping persecution, as nine out of ten have proven to be so far”.
Their comments came as 13 bodies were recovered from another asylum boat tragedy off Christmas Island. More than 60 people are missing, feared dead, from the vessel which vanished overnight on June 5.
In the first week of June 660 asylum seekers reached Australia, with more than 11,300 arriving so far in 2013.
Fr Pettenà said “Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons: Pastoral Guidelines” made several important assertions.
In regards to refugees and asylum seekers, the first point of reference should not be the interests of the State or national security, but the human person
The most vulnerable are not simply those who are in a needy situation to whom we kindly offer an act of solidarity, but they are members of our family with whom we have a duty to share the resources we have
The ecclesial community is called to become a sign of contradiction and promote altruism or even heroic acts when offering hospitality
For Christian communities that remain authentic and credible, Christians must look to Jesus Christ as their constant point of reference.
Mr Arndt said “it is a great shame that many politicians and media commentators are encouraging hostility to asylum seekers with misinformation and false claims”.
“Both the major political parties in Australia are focused on keeping asylum seekers out of the country,” he said.
The attitude of Catholic lay people and organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society offered some hope of justice, he said.
“Day by day, we learn that more and more Catholics in parishes and St Vincent de Paul conferences around the archdiocese are humbly and quietly helping asylum seekers in their local community with their basic needs,” Mr Arndt said.
“As a result of this work, they are also learning about the horrors they have faced in their homelands.
“We have also been privileged to help them settle here when they are given protection as refugees and we are delighted to see how much they give back to the community in which they live.”