(Vatican Radio) Exactly one year ago Pope Francis undertook the first Apostolic journey of his papacy. He chose to visit the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants fleeing conflict, persecution and adverse conditions in their homelands.
The Pope threw a wreath of flowers into the sea to remember the many who died during their journey. He met with several migrants thanking them for their welcome, and during Mass he spoke of a “globalization of indifference” that has accustomed us to the suffering of others.
Since that prophetic journey that took place on July 8, 2013, Europe has been faced with a refugee crisis that continues to grow exponentially with the unabated conflict in Syria and violence flaring in many other nations to the south and to the east of its borders.
To mark this anniversary, but above all to highlight the issue and the need for public awareness and political action, Vatican Radio’s Linda Bordoni spoke to the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service, Father Peter Balleis SJ who pointed out that the way Europe handles the crisis, from its Christian roots, will be decisive for its future relations with the Middle East and its people…
Listen to the interview…
Father Peter Balleis says that today we are dealing with the highest number of refugees since the end of the Second World War, “according to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) it has reached around 50/51 million, figures that include refugees in foreign countries and internally displaced persons” he said.
Of course – he points out – the number of refugees that moves outside their countries has increased significantly “and that pressure is being felt” he said.
The main reasons for the exodus of refugees Balleis points to are the conflict in Syria as well as the volatile situation in the whole of the Middle East and what is happening in Iraq. Then he points to Northern Africa, the Sahel and the countries bordering the Sahel like Mali and the conflict there 3 years ago, the active conflict in Northern Nigeria, Central Africa with its “highest level emergency”, South Sudan since last December, and continuing violence in Somalia, “so you have two major regions of the world bordering Europe and the Mediterranean which are the most volatile and conflictive areas of the world” he said.
Speaking of the need to raise public awareness as to the tragic predicament of refugees and the fact that they need, and deserve, to be recognized and accepted, Balleis says that witnessing the war in Syria has increased the willingness of people to accept its refugees.
Europe – he says – has an ongoing debate on the agenda regarding how to resettle hundreds of thousands of people – “but it is not enough given the immense crisis” he said.
Looking back to Pope Francis’s visit to Lampedusa, Balleis says it was a prophetic one, “prophetic also in the sense that it seemed to be looking into the future as last year in July we did not know that South Sudan and Central Africa were going to blow up, that Syria was going to get worse, that South Sudan is falling apart again – not knowing - but the sense that is an issue of great concern” he said.
“Putting it high up on the agenda he did the right thing”.
Balleis says the moral value of the Pope’s visit is important: “setting the value high in European societies who claim - and have - deep Christian roots is a challenge to us and our values that call us to give these people protection and receive them when they are in great need” he said.
“Pope Francis did what he can do on his level, and it did have an impact and is always a point of reference for States, for civil society for the Church – we must always ask ourselves: ‘are we doing enough?” he said.
Balleis speaks of some situations and current practices in his native, Germany, in which churches and parishes are taking concrete steps to offer refuge following the example of the Pope: “That would not have been thinkable a year ago”. People are encouraged by the Pope’s example and by the example that he has given “within the Church and beyond the Church” he said.
Balleis also points out that when the Pope met with refugees at the Jesuit-run Centro Astalli shortly after his visit to Lampedusa, he spoke personally to people and listened to their stories. Listening to stories – Balleis says – stories that represent those of many others, gives motivation to act and encourages people and institution to take action.
And looking at a photo of the Pope’s visit which features a number of families and children touches everyone heart and prompts one to say: “these children they have nothing to do with these conflicts – give them a future – they will be valuable citizens in our countries” he said.
So in the end – Father Balleis says “doing the right thing is not just beneficial for the refugees it is also beneficial for our societies.”
It is clear, he says, that we –JRS or Church – do not have the solution, we cannot solve that war, but as society we can behave in such a way that we can help build the future.
He speaks of the challenge of receiving and integrating so many people of Islamic faith into Christian Europe and of the preoccupations of possible manifestations of extremism, “but the way we deal with people who are themselves victims of extremism will help to find a way to overcome extremisms and live together in diversity of faith but still united as human beings” he said.
“The way Europe handles the crisis, from its Christian roots, will be decisive for its future relations with the Middle East and its people, because the one thing people do not forget, is the person who reached out with his hands to help them when they were in greatest need”.