You know the account of the Wise Men who visited baby Jesus in the Bible, following a bright star and bearing exotic gifts and whatnot? And you know how the larger narrative of that story was that Jesus and his family had to flee as refugees because the political authorities organized an ethnic cleansing to try and murder him? (Go ahead, look up Matthew Chapter 2). Well, Pope Francis seems to remember that part of the story pretty well.
Pope Francis yesterday celebrated the Catholic Church’s World Day of Migrants and Refugees. The ceremony was a big deal, featuring the unveiling of a huge sculpture in St. Peter’s Square (the first new sculpture there in 400 years) depicting various refugees from across time and geography. Francis has made the plight of such travelers and displaced people a major area of focus during his papacy. His words, denouncing countries that make and export “weapons of war” but refuse “to take in refugees generated by these conflicts” were not so subtle jabs at the Trump Administration, as well as various European countries, where skepticism towards immigrants and refugees has grown in recent years.
This rebuke is especially biting for the United States, where the Trump Administration announced that the number of refugees admitted into the country over the next year will be capped at 18,000, the lowest number since the refugee program was created in 1980 (by contrast, Obama had set the number at over 100,000 at the end of his presidency).
In many ways, Trump’s policies are both in line with his long-stated views (gotta keep out those murderers, rapists, and maybe “some…good people”), his general America-first brand of xenophobic nationalism, and the views of his base. This last point is especially interesting: among Americans, white Evangelical Christians have become the group least likely to support accepting refugees, while the non-religious are most likely to say the country has a duty to do so. Some conservative Christian leaders, however, have pushed back against the Trump administration’s goal of essentially ending US hosting of refugees; even the usually Trump-supportive Tony Perkins, controversial (seriously, the “Controversy” section of his Wikipedia page is rather long) head of the Family Research Council, has urged the President to reconsider.
The worldwide refugee crisis is becoming increasingly complex. The tiny East African nation of Rwanda (which has its own very complicated history with refugees from its conflicts), has recently started to accept African refugees who had been stranded in Libya as they attempted to make their way north To Europe; Rwanda, a country of only 12 million people, plans to accept as many as 30,000 refugees (i.e. almost twice as many as the US, if we’re comparing).
The Catholic Church has a stake in the game; there are a number of Christian refugees now returning to formerly ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, and the Vatican has urged help from the international community in resettling these returnees and protecting them against future violence and persecution like that inflicted by the Islamic State. But Pope Francis’ pleas are not just about Christians, but a universal appeal to protect migrants and people fleeing violence and persecution, even as countries in Western Christendom begin to shut their doors. Sounds like we’re in a good “What Would Jesus Do?” moment, no?