In my home, in front of the icon of Jesus and Mary in my prayer corner, I keep a photo of a Syrian refugee family. The mother is wearing what looks to be a hijab, which would indicate that this holy family fleeing the violence and killing in Syria is probably Muslim.
Which is all to the good because when Jesus commanded us to welcome the stranger, he meant everyone, including Muslims. I put their picture there because I want their beautiful faces to be a daily reminder to pray for them and for all of the refugees fleeing from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan who are desperate to find shelter, safety and most importantly, welcome.
The horrific attacks last week by Islamist terrorists in Paris are a reminder of the unrelenting warfare and daily violence that has forced tens of thousands of families to flee Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in search of refuge and safety. Their situation continues to be dire and their needs are basic and urgent.
The numbers alone are staggering. Catholic Relief Services (CRS) reports that since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, 4 million refugees have fled Syria to nearby Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced, having been forced by the conflict to seek refuge in other parts of Syria. 300,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed during the war.
Since the start of 2015, CRS estimates that more than 360,000 refugees have landed on the shores of Greece, enroute to European Union countries such as Germany where they hope to find asylum. It is a perilous journey: the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that some 2,500 Syrian refugees have drowned making the dangerous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece and from Libya to Italy.
Because Syrian refugees are unable to apply for asylum outside of the European Union, those seeking asylum are forced to enter Europe illegally. Crossing by sea is not only dangerous but very costly and many refugees have spent their life savings or gone into debt to pay for their passage. They are at the mercy of those trafficking them, risking abuse and death at every stage of their journey.
Families that survive the journey arrive in Europe with very little and need food, water, sanitation, protection from the elements and legal advice. CRS, alongside many other humanitarian and relief organizations, has been working to provide help to these refugees as they arrive in Europe.
Working in transit camps in Greece, Albania, Macedonia and Serbia, CRS has provided Syrian and Iraqi refugees with their basic physical needs as well as seeking to help them cope with the trauma of war dislocation and the disruption of their daily lives. CRS estimates that 45 percent of the refugees are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and that at least 60 percent are suffering from depression. Many of the children who have witnessed the violence and cruelty of war exhibit severe symptoms of trauma. CRS, in partnership with the local churches and other aid groups is working to help provide therapy and counseling to the some of the tens of thousands of children spiritually and emotionally wounded by the war.
As I have looked at the photos of exhausted refugees trudging down roads in their hundreds or sleeping wherever they can find a place to lie down in open fields, parks or in makeshift camps, I try to remember that every single person belongs to a family. Every refugee has a mother or father, a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a son or daughter who knows their name and loves them. Even more importantly, every single one of them is known uniquely by God, who loves and cherishes them infinitely.
Despite the understandable fear and anger that so many feel following the terrorist attacks in Paris, those of us who bear the name Christian must redouble our commitment to see the face of Jesus in the faces of these poor, uprooted and abandoned refugees. The refugees are not our enemy and the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Kenya and now Mali, only makes their situation worse.
Some are urging us to close our hearts and our borders to these unfortunate families and individuals. Even more disturbing is the proposal to offer Syrian refugees asylum in this country, but only if they are Christians, while denying asylum to those who are Muslim.
Yes, Syrian and Iraqi Christians have been and continue to be the victims of violent and murderous persecution that has forced hundreds of thousands of them to flee for their lives. Of course they should be given asylum in our country and elsewhere.
Other religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Yazidis have been massacred or enslaved by their persecutors. They too should be given asylum here and abroad.
But Syrian and Iraqi Muslim refugees who are fleeing civil war and religious, political and ethnic persecution are no less deserving of safety, shelter and asylum, here and in other nations. And although one politician has recently and shamefully compared them to “rabid dogs”, these refugees are our brothers and sisters.
Jesus so identified with those in need, with strangers, foreigners and refugees that he made how we treat them the criterion for salvation or condemnation at the Last Judgement. With diligence and prudence, but even more so, with compassion and generosity let us welcome these unfortunate refugees with the same mercy and compassion with which we hope Jesus will welcome us when we stand before Him on the last day.
• Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Diocesan director for Catholic Relief Services.