On Syrian refugees, bishops say: Welcome all to the table

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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As the United States prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving — a holiday that American legend traces back to a dinner between Native Americans and bedraggled, immigrant pilgrims — some of the country’s top political leaders are calling to block the arrival of Syrian refugees, would-be immigrants fleeing chaos and possible death in the Middle East, a situation some think the U.S. helped create. 

In the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris terrorist attacks, newly elected U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said the U.S. government needs to “balance our compassion and our safety,” when it comes to processing refugees from Iraq and Syria, who would otherwise undergo a rigorous screening process, taking up to two years, and including multiple interviews and security checks.

“This is a moment,” said Ryan, a Catholic who isn't shy about expressing his faith, “… when it’s better to be safe than sorry.”

But American Catholic leadership is singing a very different tune. In statements and action alerts sent out post-Paris attacks, the USCCB strongly rejected this line of reasoning.

“On behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, I offer my deepest condolences to the families of the victims of the November 13 attacks in Paris, France and to the French people,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of that committee, in a statement issued during the bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore.  

“I add my voice to all those condemning these attacks and my support to all who are working to ensure such attacks do not occur again — both in France and around the world.”

“I am disturbed, however,” Elizondo continued, “by calls from both federal and state officials for an end to the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the United States. These refugees are fleeing terror themselves — violence like we have witnessed in Paris. They are extremely vulnerable families, women, and children who are fleeing for their lives. We cannot and should not blame them for the actions of a terrorist organization.”

Elizondo said that “we must work with the world community to provide safe haven to vulnerable and deserving refugees who are simply attempting to survive. As a great nation, the United States must show leadership during this crisis and bring nations together to protect those in danger and bring an end to the conflicts in the Middle East.”

An “Action Alert” put out by the bishops' conference was even more forceful in its rejection of the call to block refugees. 

“Unfortunately, in response to the shock of the Paris attacks, a number of U.S. Governors recently announced that they want to stop their states from resettling Syrian refugees,” it read. “Some Members of Congress have even introduced legislation that would stop refugee resettlement altogether. It is critical that public officials hear from their constituents NOW, including Catholics, as decisions are being made that could drastically impact the lives of Syrian refugees and refugee resettlement in the United States. The U.S. has always been a haven for the world’s refugees and the Catholic Church plays a large role in that welcome. The U.S. has a safe secure resettlement process through which we should continue that life-saving tradition. Welcoming refugees is the American way and an important part of our Catholic Christian calling.”

The alert urges Americans to call their senators, congressional representatives and governors. “When you call, tell the receptionist that as a constituent, you want to help WELCOME Syrian refugees and that you are against the calls of some governors to reject Syrian refugees,” it reads.

It includes “helpful” talking points:

  • “Welcoming refugees is the American way and an important part of the Catholic Christian calling.”
  •  “The US government handpicks the refugees who resettle here, and refugees are the most thoroughly vetted people to come to the United States.”
  • “All refugees resettled in the United States undergo rigorous security screenings by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies, including biometric checks, forensic testing, medical screenings and in-person interviews.”
  • “This is not an either/or situation. The United States can continue to welcome refugees while also continuing to ensure national security. We must do both.”

And concludes with tweeting instructions: “You can also tweet your Members of Congress and your network: @REPRESENTATIVE, Our community is ready to welcome #Syrian #refugees. #RefugeesWelcome #AmericaWelcomes!”

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is vrotondaro@ncronline.org.]

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