A community that has often felt at the fringe of humanity welcomed the launch of the Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP Syrian Refugee Appeal in their midst on Sunday during a liturgy to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.
CatholicCare CEO Bernard Boerma launched the appeal at Our Lady of Mercy Syrian Catholic Church in Concord, saying that the appeal would pool resources of the Catholic community as it prepared to welcome some of the 12,000 refugees Australia had agreed to accept from the region.
“We are encouraging the broader Catholic community to respond generously to the appeal,” Mr Boerma told the congregation.
“We are asking the Catholic community (for financial support and) to make offers of temporary accommodation in their homes, to welcome them into their homes and help them to be introduced to Australian life … to do whatever is needed to make them (feel) at home here”.
It was an entreaty which received a warm welcome from Fr Rahal Dergham, parish priest to a community of largely Iraqi-origin who had seen Islamic State purge their traditional lands of Christians and other minorities, beginning in August 2014.
He said Syrian Catholics would forgive but never forget the atrocities that had been committed against them by Islamic State terrorists. “We are so proud to be brothers of this (Catholic) family,” Fr Dergham said.
“Sometimes we feel at the fringe of humanity, of letting this scourge rule over our hearts …
“(But) in spite of all the persecution … the injustice and also the international neglect of our families and our Catholic people, suffering every day in Syria and Iraq and many places in the Middle East, we still feel blessed and profess God’s mercy and love and mission in the world”.
Speaking to The Catholic Weekly after the launch of the appeal, Syrian Catholic community leader Raghdan Bashir said that 90 Syrian Catholic families had offered to welcome refugees into their homes.
They were looking forward to providing temporary accommodation and ongoing care to some of the around 200 Syrian Catholic families thought to be among Australia’s agreed intake.
“We are very happy if we can do something to support these people because they are our families at the end of the day,” Mr Bashir said.
“It’s one of the reasons why we open our homes to them, to accommodate them … to support the people as much as we can and we are more than happy to teach them how to adapt to the society, too.
“We are able to support them by human resource, saving the government and Budget a lot of money for this program if they give us a chance to work together … We are happy to do that. So these 200, it’s not a big number. I hope they will put them in priority”.
The launch came a day after Archbishop Fisher raised concerns that Australia’s intake would not include many members of persecuted minorities, such as Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrians and others.
In a report in the Australian Archbishop Fisher expressed concern about the confusion surrounding selection rules, particularly in relation to nominations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Eastern Christian Welfare Australia raised the same concerns saying that many Christians avoided the largely Muslim-populated camps administered by the UNHCR, fearing that they had been infiltrated by Islamist fighters.
At the time of going to press, there were reports that the government had announced it was ready to expand its special humanitarian program to accept more Christian and Kurdish refugees as a counterweight to the UNHCR’s nomination.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the conflicts in the Middle East would likely make the region a less hospitable for Christians, long term.
“The regimes in Iraq and Syria … were secular tyrannies — that is to say Christians were not persecuted by reason of being Christians, as a general rule,” Mr Turnbull said, as reported in the Australian.
“The tenor of the times is much less welcoming to minorities like Christians and that is why the focus of the 12,000 intake is on persecuted minorities and women and children.”
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said Australia’s intake would be a mixture of UNHCR referrals and special humanitarian program referrals, saying the government’s focus had always been on “the most persecuted minorities, women and children”.