Interfaith panel discusses responding to refugee crisis

by Elizabeth A. Elliott

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Leaders of Catholic, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities came together Thursday as part of the Kansas City Library's 2016 Immigrant Heritage Series to discuss faith responses to the refugee crisis. Presented by the American Friends Service Committee and the Greater Kansas City Interfaith Council, the topic was "Confronting Extremist Violence, the Refugee Crisis, and Fear: Faith Responses."

The panelists discussed this issue just a month after Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback announced that Kansas will withdraw from the federal refugee resettlement program. The Kansas City, Kan., archdiocese released a statement saying it is reviewing the impact of the state's federal withdrawal on its own work.

"It is the government who decides who qualifies as a refugee. The Church's mission is to serve the refugees that are directed to us and to stand with those refugees throughout the resettlement process," said the statement. "In accordance with our belief in the dignity of every human person, the Church will continue to fulfill its Gospel mandate to serve those who are in need."

Brian Steed, a Middle East specialist at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., opened the evening. He said of the Islamic State group that "much of the mystique is that they are everywhere and that no one is safe. It is in this competition of narrative we need to engage with our ideas for narratives. ... Ideas and narratives that will inspire peoples and nations to do the difficult things we are asking them to do."

"How you behave is going to change those perceptions," added Steed. "Welcome those here from abroad."

Following Steed's presentation, panelists including the Rev. Vernon Howard Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Kansas City; Fadi Banyalmarjeh, board member of the Islamic Society of Greater Kansas City; Rabbi Linda Steigman, board member of Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City; and Fr. Paul Turner, ecumenical officer for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese and pastor of St. Anthony Church in Kansas City, Mo., were each given time to share how their faiths respond to the refugee crisis.

Turner told NCR one reason people fear the coming of refugees is our experience with terrorism, which he said he understands.

"Fear is an obstacle to hospitality," he said. "It is fear that threatens to cast out love."

"At the same time I think we have other values we need to remind ourselves about and keep putting them into play," he continued.

In an interview before the event, Turner said that Catholics don't do enough to contact elected officials with their opinion on the refugee crisis.

"I think the people of faith hold very strong values and they have opportunities to make them known and to put them into practice especially in the United States," he said. "We have plenty of opportunity to let the elected officials know the values we hold."

Banyalmarjeh spoke to the audience about how Syria welcomed refugees with open arms. "It can't be an extremist nation as one of the most welcoming of refugees," he said.

Steigman told NCR she addresses the refugee crisis in her congregation through sermons, newsletter articles and education.

"I do not tell people what to think," she said. "I do teach them what our tradition teaches, so that they can make their own decisions according to Jewish values as demonstrated in our texts and teachings."

Steigman said it is important to address these issues through the lens of faith.

"Many people don't know what their faith teaches, and may be easily influenced by the irresponsible rhetoric of leaders, especially political leaders," she said. "Once a person knows what her faith teaches, she can make a responsible decision about these issues, share his decision with others, and be more responsible in the electoral process."

Steed said the U.S. is seen by the Middle East as being about materialism. He showed images of the top 10 television shows of 2012 that reflect the adage of "eat, drink and be merry."

"The narrative that we broadcast to the world in America you can eat better, drink better and be merry better than anywhere else," he said. "In contrast, ISIS presents the message that they are the army of God and that by joining them you are serving God and bringing about His divine plan. The average young person wants to have a purpose; they want to have meaning. ISIS provides a contrasting alternative -- fight for God or live a materialistic hedonism."

"Just as our media communicates narrative of America that is not reflective of a majority of Americans, so does our characterizations of most Muslims. We tend to look at Muslims as if they all want to destroy the U.S," he added. 

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