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U.S. bishop disturbed by moves to end resettlement of Syrian refugees

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Syrian refugees wait on the Syrian side of the border near Sanliurfa, Turkey, in June. Photo: CNS/Sedat/Suna, EPA
Syrian refugees wait on the Syrian side of the border near Sanliurfa, Turkey, in June. Photo: CNS/Sedat/Suna, EPA

The head of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration said he was disturbed by calls from 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,” said Seattle Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, chairman of the migration committee. “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 organisation.”

In a statement issued on 17 November during the bishops’ general assembly in Baltimore, Bishop Elizondo offered condolences to the French people, especially families of the victims of the 13 November attacks in Paris in which at least 129 people were killed and hundreds were injured. He said he supported “all who are working to ensure such attacks do not occur again – both in France and around the world”.

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But addressing calls from some governors and federal officials – including House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin – to pause or halt refugee resettlement until the U.S. can ensure the safety of its citizens, Bishop Elizondo said refugees “must pass security checks and multiple interviews before entering the United States – more than any arrival to the United States. It can take up to two years for a refugee to pass through the whole vetting process. We can look at strengthening the already stringent screening program, but we should continue to welcome those in desperate need”.

He urged public officials to work together to end the conflict in Syria so the country’s nearly 4 million refugees can return home.

“Until that goal is achieved, 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,” he said.

In a separate statement, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, said although refugees’ backgrounds must be checked carefully, “it would be wrong for our nation and our state to refuse to accept refugees simply because they are Syrian or Muslim”.

“Too often in the past, however, our nation has erroneously targeted individuals as dangerous simply because of their nationality or religion,” the bishop said. “In these turbulent times, it is important that prudence not be replaced by hysteria.”

The U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency, Catholic Relief Services, emphasised how carefully refugees are vetted in a five-point post called 5 Reasons Not to Punish Syrian Refugees for the Paris Attacks.

“The refugees are not ISIS,” it said, referring to them as allies in the fight against Islamic State.

The column, by Michael Hill, CRS senior writer, noted: “Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, it’s estimated that more than 250,000 people have died. Countless homes and places of work have been destroyed. Refugees arriving in Europe have recounted in horrific detail the atrocities they witnessed within their homeland. As one mother told us, ‘You wouldn’t put a child on this boat unless it’s safer than your home. Imagine this desperation. We have nothing to lose.’

“These people should not be blamed for the actions of an extremist fringe group like ISIS. If anything, the Paris attacks should increase our sympathy for their plight,” the column said.

“While we recognise legitimate security concerns, our leaders and politicians must understand that refusing to welcome the stranger and failing to work together toward a solution to this refugee crisis only aids our enemies,” Hill wrote. “We understand the fear many American people, including members of our Catholic population, have that the senseless violence perpetrated in Paris, Beirut, and so many other places will find its way here. But as followers of Christ, we cannot allow our attitudes and our actions to be overtaken by this fear.”

In her 17 November report to the bishops about the work of Catholic Charities USA, Dominican Sister Donna Markham, the organisation’s president and CEO, said the refugee crisis is serious and Catholic Charities agencies want to do what they can to welcome these refugees in the United States.

She said she has met with White House officials about this but she has also seen a negative reaction to the agency’s offer to help with “disturbing mail” sent from people who don’t want the refugees in this country.

“We’re ready to help, if we can get them here,” she said, stressing that Catholic Charities agencies represent the church’s ministry that Pope Francis described as a field hospital.

During a 17 November news conference at the bishops’ meeting in Baltimore, Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, CRS board chairman, pointed out that the violent attack that took place in Paris is “precisely the brutality these refugees are fleeing”.

Rather than “further victimise the victims”, he called on Catholics and Americans – “as a nation of immigrants” – to treat Syrian refugees with “a certain compassion and understanding”.

The archbishop spoke of the need to “exercise prudence” and carefully vet incoming refugees, but he also said Syrian refugees are “being more vigorously vetted” than other refugees groups, noting that the immigration process can take from 18 to 24 months.

With Carol Zimmermann.

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