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Photo: Amanda Nero/International Organization for Migration 2015

Jesus, the Refugee

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By Jennifer Sparks (Nov. 23, 2015)

As we head into the holy season of Advent, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on one particular aspect of Christ's identity that I don't often hear emphasized: Jesus as a refugee.

We are familiar with the image of a weary Joseph leading a pregnant Mary around Bethlehem in search of a place to stay.

Less familiar though is the image of the family, baby Jesus now in Mary's arms, fleeing on a donkey away from Bethlehem and into the land of Egypt to escape King Herod's ruthless persecution.

By legal definition, as people with a well-founded fear of persecution based on their ethnicity, religion, and social group, this family would be protected under the Geneva Convention, put in place after World War II to protect people displaced across international borders.

Simply put, they would be refugees.

It is impossible to escape the news of the current crisis in Europe, as hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants have made a desperate sea crossing to reach what they hope will be friendly shores.

Consider the following:

• According to the International Organization for Migration, over 830,000 people have crossed from the Middle East into Europe by sea. They came primarily from Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

• According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are almost 20 million refugees registered globally, though the number of those eligible is considerably higher. There are almost 4.3 million Syrian refugees. While Syria has dominated the news, there are a large number of refugees and displaced people from places as widely scattered as Sudan, Afghanistan, and Burma.

• The war in Syria is in its fifth year, and there is no end in sight. A child born there in 2010 will have known nothing but war, and possibly life as a refugee.

• The situation in Syria is classified by international humanitarian organizations as the highest level of emergency. That means that immediate and widespread humanitarian intervention and assistance is necessary for large segments of the population. The electricity and water are cut for much of the urban population, and the bombs falling means that it is difficult for work to continue. There is little cash in circulation, and little food to buy. Syria is literally hollowing out as people, industry, and money disappear from the country.

• Refugees form almost half the population in Lebanon, as it is host to over 1 million Syrian and another million Palestinian refugees. The American equivalent would be if the U.S. took in 160 million refugees, or half its own population, with a crucial difference: We have the space and infrastructure to absorb them. Lebanon does not. Turkey has taken in over 2 million refugees, and Jordan and Egypt have both taken in several hundred thousand each. Those four countries are disproportionately rising to the responsibility of nation-states to harbor refugees.

• In Syria, as in many other countries, the threats to people's lives are indiscriminate. Whether they are Muslims, Jews, Christians, rich, poor, old, young, it doesn't matter — war observes no such distinctions. The physical threat comes from the government, from foreign bombardment, from ISIS, from the thousands of armed factions that have sprouted up. Reports of gruesome killings, barbaric torture, disappearances, threats against family members, and inhumane and inhospitable living conditions have driven people from their homes. Would you stay under such conditions, if it was within your power to leave?

• Families are fragmented and scattered across the globe as they try to find a way to safety with the desperate hope of one day being reunited in their home countries. We have heard of families with members scattered along the migrant trail from Syria, through Turkey, and across Europe, all trying to reach whatever haven they could.

• The people who flee their countries are the ones with resources — they are usually middle to upper class who have the money to leave and start fresh. They do not come as blank slates. They come with skills, expertise, and experience; but most of all they come with a deep desire to work and build stability for themselves and their families. Take America as an example. We are a nation founded by refugees, and look at how far we have come. To close our borders and our hearts is the epitome of hypocrisy.

• We have heard repeatedly from refugee parents that they fled so their children could have a future. They want the stability to be able to work and provide an education and opportunities for their children to not live a life on the run. Again, many of those fleeing are well educated, entrepreneurial, and hungry to prove themselves. They want to live in peace and participate in their new communities, if only their hosts will give them a chance to.

Both international law and the law of God demands Christians show hospitality to refugees. By rejecting refugees, we don't merely refuse aid to strangers in need; we put them in serious danger. By hardening our hearts and attempting to turn away refugees, we reject Jesus' message of loving our neighbors. But we also reject Jesus Himself (see Mt 25). What would have happened if the Egyptians had sealed their borders and denied Jesus, Mary, and Joseph respite in their country?

Building physical walls to keep people out is an expression of the barriers in our hearts. As Pope Francis said on Sept. 28, "Walls all fall down — today, tomorrow or in a hundred years — but they will fall. Building walls is not a solution; a wall is not a solution. Europe is presently in difficulty, this is true. We have to think; we have to understand why this great wave of migration is taking place, and it is not easy to come up with solutions. But dialogue among countries, that is how solutions can be found. Walls are never solutions, but bridges always are."

Jesus told us to love our neighbors. He did not put any specific caveats on that statement. He did not tell us to only love our Christian neighbor. Or our Catholic neighbor. Or our Jewish neighbor. Or our Muslim neighbor. His love is so much more universal than that.

Let future generations know we are Christians by our love. Let us love our neighbors, the refugees.

Jennifer Sparks lives and works in Egypt, aiding refugees through an international humanitarian organization.

EDITOR'S NOTE: To learn more about the refugee crisis and the Church's response, visit

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Kevin - Dec 3, 2015

More talk of what we should do with VERY little or no ideas as to how to protect our country or pay for these generous proposals. Does18 Trillion $ and counting ring a bell anyone? And that doesn't count state and municiple debt. I did my tour and have seen enough and heard enough rhetoric from politicians and bishops. All talk, no desire to walk the walk.

Maymae - Nov 26, 2015

A country as huge as USA afraid to take in 10,000
Our war in Iraq created 200,000 refugees, whom most fled to Syria. Where are those poor souls now?
Our hands are not clean in this wholesale fracturing of the Middle East. To turn our back on 10,000 souls who need our help is absolutely obscene.
The same politicians who don't want to help the refugees, are the very same pols who did not want to help the first responders of 9/11 and the very same pols who did not want to help Hurricane Sandy victims. They always, without fail, have a reason not to help those in need.
I am a veteran and am over 50 years old, This perpetual fear is un-American and religiously speaking, it reveals the great faithlessness of our society.

Peter - Nov 24, 2015

For anyone opposed to us helping our brothers and sisters, be informed that our Catholic bishops are doubling down on our obligation to welcome Syrian refugees ... From, November 23, 2015:

In the wake of increasingly hostile political rhetoric and Congressional action aimed at reducing the number of Syrian refugees resettled in the United States, Catholic bishops are doubling down on their call for the United States to open its doors to refugees, conjuring up images of past anti-Catholic bigotry to help make their case.

“How can we look the other way, as they huddle with their children in foreign lands with barely any shelter, clothing or food?” wrote Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich in Friday’s Chicago Sun-Times. “We must not. These are our neighbors.”

Cupich pointed to Chicago’s anti-Catholic past, which included a pledge among business owners not to hire Catholics and the election of an anti-Catholic mayor who, in 1855, railed against Catholic Chicagoans, whom he said were “bound under an oath of allegiance to the temporal, as well as the spiritual supremacy of a foreign despot.” (That would be the pope.)

“This is our history, but it need not repeat itself,” Cupich wrote.

In recent days, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump told a reporter he is open to the idea of creating a national registry of Muslim residents in the United States, and he said he witnessed “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering after the 9/11 attacks. (This account was deemed untrue by political fact checkers.)

The US House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would, in effect, severely limit the number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees able to relocate to the United States, in part by requiring three of the Obama Administration’s top security officials to sign off on every refugee admitted.

Opponents of the bill, including Catholic bishops, point out that refugees are already subject to up to two years’ worth of screening, as well as intense follow-up checks once they are admitted.

“The security screening process for refugees is more stringent than the process for foreign tourists, students, businesspeople or anyone else,” Cupich wrote.

But proponents of the legislation, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, a practicing Catholic, say the extra security measures are justified. The bill passed Thursday by a vote of 289-137, with the support of 47 Congressional Democrats. The Obama administration has promised to veto the legislation should it clear the Senate.

Even though Cupich is considered to be center-left among the US hierarchy, support for Syrian refugees does not fit neatly into US ideological buckets.

New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, for example, a leader among the conservative wing of the US hierarchy, penned an op-ed Sunday in the New York Daily News in which he appealed to New Yorkers to remember their response to the 9/11 attacks, which he said largely avoided blaming Muslims for the atrocity.

“Today, we must once again make certain that the hatred directed toward us by others does not in turn lead us to close our minds and our hearts to the pain and suffering of those in need,” he wrote. “To do so would mean a different kind of destruction, this time to our morals and our principles.”


Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, spoke at an Oct. 22 dialogue of Catholic women leaders at Georgetown University in Washington. Also pictured is John Carr, the event's moderator. (CNS photo/Lisa Helfert, Georgetown University)
US religious leaders make forceful appeal to admit refugees

Last week, during an annual gathering of US bishops in Baltimore, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle released a statement on behalf of US bishops in which he said he was disturbed by calls to limit the resettlement of refugees.

“Instead of using this tragedy to scapegoat all refugees, I call upon our public officials to work together to end the Syrian conflict peacefully so the close to 4 million Syrian refugees can return to their country and rebuild their homes,” he wrote.

“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 continued.

Other bishops continue to weigh-in on the issue:

The four Catholic bishops of Missouri took on Gov. Jay Nixon for joining more than two dozen of his colleagues in refusing to welcome refugees in that state, calling on Nixon in a letter released Friday to “to work with federal officials to both keep our citizens safe and to allow refugees from war-torn Syrian to settle in our state.”

In New Hampshire, Bishop Peter Libasci called on the governor there to reverse her decision to limit resettlement, and said in a Friday statement that the local Catholic Charities agency “stands ready to offer our assistance to refugees who may come to the Granite State seeking asylum from Syria.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Rhode Island urged Americans to calm down, warning, “In these turbulent times, it is important that prudence not be replaced by hysteria.”

And bishops in New Mexico on Monday slammed lawmakers who sought to use the attacks in Paris as leverage to limit drivers’ licenses for immigrants, and they called on Catholics there to send letters to Obama, “urging him to expand US resettlement efforts of Syrian refugees who are fleeing unspeakable atrocities and violence.”

While Catholic bishops continue their pro-refugee campaign, a recent poll suggests they have their work cut out for them.

Americans largely oppose welcoming more refugees from Syria and other Mideast conflicts, 54 to 43 percent, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Friday.

D.Morris - Nov 24, 2015

Check out what this anti-terrorist has to say on the Syrian refugee crisis and that there are alternatives in helping them, without compromising a Country's national security.

Chris - Nov 24, 2015

I don't think it is that simple. As Trent Horn pointed out in his post at Catholic Answers, the Catechism states the common good "alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families" (ccc 1911) points out our obligation. However the Catechism also states "the common good requires peace, that is, the stability and security of just order. It presupposes that authority should ensure by morally acceptable means the security of society and it's members" (ccc 1909). As in relates the the complexity of this struggle, it would be reasonable and moral to receive orphans and elderly into the United States, however there also a moral duty to protect the citizens of this country. Until there is a better way to determine those that can safely enter, a pause is not unreasonable or immoral in my opinion.

Wisechilde - Nov 23, 2015

Yes, for true refugees this maybe true, that we are to help them. However; those of the muslim faith are a danger and a direct threat to our way of life and especially, our faith which is "more precious than gold" St. Peter. These people when taken into a country take over and demand and input Sharia law! They do NOT want to live peacefully side by side with those of different faiths as we do here in the U.S., or have you forgotten what Mohammed did at ancient Medina, or the need for the crusades, or what has happened to cities like Dearborn Michigan, Paris France, and of course let us not forget 9/11! When the Holy Family used the manger they then did not take it over and then force the Inn keepers out, nor in Egypt did they force their beliefs on the people there. I feel for the children, the elderly, and the women, but the men should be fighting to get their land back, but instead young, healthy muslim males (with cell phones) are here. Why? I hazard a guess it's not for pizza. God bless.