Echoing Bible, Francis calls on world leaders to adopt bold solutions for migration

Vatican City — Pope Francis has used his annual address to global ambassadors accredited at the Vatican to cry for better treatment of migrants around the world, calling especially on European leaders to not let security concerns undermine a system of welcoming refugees “painstakingly built on the ashes of the Second World War.”

The pontiff also insisted that the world’s leaders work with “greater boldness and creativity” in search of “new and sustainable solutions” to global migration.

In a nearly 45-minute address to the diplomats Monday, the pope at times echoed the voices of Old Testament characters and Psalm writers, saying that today, just as millennia ago “we hear Rachel weeping for her children who are no more.”

“Hers is the plea of thousands of people who weep as they flee horrific wars, persecutions and human rights violations, or political or social instability, which often make it impossible for them to live in their native lands,” Francis said.

Later, the pope bluntly told the world’s representatives: “Many of the causes of migration could have been addressed some time ago.”

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“So many disasters could have been prevented, or at least their harshest effects mitigated,” he said.

“Today too, before it is too late, much could be done to end these tragedies and to build peace,” the pope continued. “But that would mean rethinking entrenched habits and practices, beginning with issues involving the arms trade, the provision of raw materials and energy, investment, policies of financing and sustainable development, and even the grave scourge of corruption.”

The pontiff was speaking Monday in an annual address to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, in which the pope normally gives a sort of a “State of the World” speech on problems facing the global community. The Vatican has formal relations with about 180 countries, some 90 of which have ambassadors in residence.

Francis focused more than two-thirds of his address on the situation facing migrants, speaking particularly about the recent wave of migration to Europe from the Middle East.

But he also addressed treatment of immigrants in other parts of the world, at one point even referencing what he called the “dramatic situation” on the U.S.-Mexico border and mentioning his upcoming trip in February to the border city of Ciudad Juárez.

Besides migration, the pontiff also mentioned several other situations around the world, praising particularly the nuclear deal framework agreed upon between Iran, the U.S., and several other countries.

“This significant accord represents for the entire international community an important achievement,” Francis said of that deal. “It reflects a powerful collective realization of the grave responsibility incumbent on individuals and nations to protect creation, to promote a ‘culture of care which permeates all of society.’”

The pope also repeated his frequent admonition against religious fundamentalism, mentioning his November trip to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic and stating: “One may never kill in the name of God.”

“Only a distorted ideological form of religion can think that justice is done in the name of the Almighty by deliberately slaughtering defenseless persons, as in the brutal terrorist attacks which occurred in recent months in Africa, Europe and the Middle East,” said the pontiff.

Francis however spent the bulk of his speech addressing what he called “the grave crisis of migration,” saying he wanted “to discern its causes, to consider possible solutions, and to overcome the inevitable fears associated with this massive and formidable phenomenon.”

The pontiff first spoke of the issue with poetic and powerful references to the Old Testament, adopting the voices of ancient characters and Psalmists to emphasize different aspects of the migrant experience.

Citing from the Old Testament book of Joshua, the pontiff first quoted from God’s words to the Israeli leader: “Do not fear nor be dismayed, for the Lord, your God, is with you wherever you go.”

“This is the promise which God makes to Joshua, revealing his concern for every person, but particularly those in precarious situations such as people seeking refuge in a foreign country,” said Francis. “The Bible as a whole recounts the history of a humanity on the move, for mobility is part of our human nature.”

Speaking next of Rachel -- one of Jacob’s wives, who is said to have wept following the Jewish exile from Jerusalem -- the pope said her cry is one of those “forced to flee in order to escape unspeakable acts of cruelty towards vulnerable persons, such as children and the disabled, or martyrdom solely on account of their religion.”

Francis later spoke of the biblical account of Judah selling his brother Joseph, saying it evinced “the arrogance of the powerful who exploit the weak, reducing them to means for their own ends or for strategic and political schemes.”

“Where regular migration is impossible, migrants are often forced to turn to human traffickers or smugglers, even though they are aware that in the course of their journey they may well lose their possessions, their dignity and even their lives,” said the pope.

In his last biblical reference, the pontiff quoted Psalm 137 -- “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion” -- saying the Psalmists voice “is the cry of those who would readily return to their own country, if only there they could find adequate conditions of security and sustenance.”

Turning to how the current wave of migration has affected European continent, Francis said it “seems to be undermining the foundations of that ‘humanistic spirit’ which Europe has always loved and defended.”

“There should be no loss of the values and principles of humanity, respect for the dignity of every person, mutual subsidiarity and solidarity, however much they may prove, in some moments of history, a burden difficult to bear,” said the pope.

“I wish, then, to reaffirm my conviction that Europe, aided by its great cultural and religious heritage, has the means to defend the centrality of the human person and to find the right balance between its twofold moral responsibility to protect the rights of its citizens and to ensure assistance and acceptance to migrants,” he said.

Francis also called for international agreements and solutions on migration, not those favored by any particular country.

“As things presently stand, there is no place for autonomous solutions pursued by individual states, since the consequences of the decisions made by each inevitably have repercussions on the entire international community,” said the pope.

“The phenomenon of migration raises a serious cultural issue which necessarily demands a response,” said the pontiff. “The acceptance of migrants can thus prove a good opportunity for new understanding and broader horizons.”

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is jmcelwee@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]


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