(Vatican Radio) Europe and the United States must provide both humanitarian and political solutions for the millions of migrants who continue to flee from the conflicts in the Middle East.
That was the message of the former Vatican observer to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, and the former Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahoney, who have just returned from a visit to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Greece.
At a press briefing on Thursday at the Migrants and Refugees section of the Vatican’s new office for Integral Human Development, the two Church leaders spoke about the vital work of Catholic agencies in the region and about the responsibility of the international community to welcome those fleeing from conflicts.
The cardinal and the archbishop spent 10 days meeting and talking to people living in camps, in makeshift centres and in empty apartment buildings. They also saw firsthand the practical and psychological support provided by local Caritas organisations, Jesuit Refugee Service and other NGOs through education, health care, skills training and reconciliation programmes.
Both men were struck by the countless stories of suffering, of families fleeing in the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, making perilous journeys on foot or by sea, with many of them now stranded after Western countries closed their borders and cut back their refugee resettlement quotas.
But in the midst of these heartbreaking stories of hardship and uncertain futures, Cardinal Mahoney said they also heard about moments of hope and small gestures of solidarity offered to those most in need:
“I remember one family from Afghanistan, mother, father and four children. The mother said we went a month and a half without a bath, without a chance to have clean clothes. But one day these two women came and said, ‘would you like to come over and have a bath?’ And the whole family went and washed their clothes and got clean, they fed them. And they said that kindness, we will never forget, and our children will never forget, as long as we live”
While there has been recent progress in the fight against so-called Islamic State forces in Iraq, there seem to be no political solutions in sight for Syria, Yemen or elsewhere in the region. When the fighting does finally end and the reconstruction process begins, the Church leaders say the biggest challenge will be to rebuild the trust that has been shattered between Christians and Muslims, between Sunni and Shia communities, that once lived in peace with each other. Cardinal Mahoney again:
“It’s going to be the single biggest hurdle to overcome. You can rebuild buildings you can put the power lines and water systems back, but when neighbours turned on neighbours, or abandoned one another or looted their homes, that’s something a handshake is not going to erase. I think Christian and Muslim leaders need to be mediators or instruments of reconciliation.”
In the meantime, these two men echo the words of Pope Francis in urging the U.S and Europe to be “far, far more generous” in offering a safe haven for those fleeing from the conflicts. In particular Cardinal Mahoney says the U.S. is “gravely at fault” for not recognizing its responsibilities and responding to the needs of people in the region:
“The invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the United States in a sense created the earthquake that upset the Middle East. then 2008 and 9 when the US administration abruptly abandoned Iraq and let everything disintegrate into chaos only gave birth to ISIS so we all have a responsibility.”
The cardinal and the archbishop hope their trip can serve to put a human face on the immense suffering of people in that region. Only in that way will be stop seeing them as a threat, a burden or a problem to be dealt with, and start seeing them instead as our brothers and sisters in need.