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Bishops' statement challenges politicians' hard hearts


The Australian Bishops' 2015 Social Justice Statement on justice for refugees and asylum seekers comes at the right time. The image of the little boy who died in Turkey has stirred effective compassion in Europe for refugees, and has led Australia to increase the number of Syrian refugees it will take.

But the bishops' statement is not likely to receive enthusiastic support. It advocates for people who have sought protection, not in Europe, but in Australia. Some 70 per cent of Australians, and presumably the same proportion of Catholics, agree that Australia must do what it takes to stop the boats.  

The bishops are concerned with 'what it takes'. Their statement describes and criticises strongly the way in which people who seek protection in Australia are vilified and treated.

The tone of the statement is set in its introductory quotation from Pope Francis' sermon at Lampedusa. He went there to repent for the hard heartedness that led finally to the deaths of people seeking a humane life in Europe.

He focused on the people who made the journey and the people who responded to them. His tone was elegiac in focusing on the fate of people who sought protection, and uncompromising in deploring the hostility and rejection which they found. He encouraged his hearers to enter the experience of asylum seekers and allowed their outrage.

As you would expect in a statement directed to Australian Catholics, the bishops appeals to the Christian values embodied in the stories of Jesus and in the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The statement embodies these principles in the experience of people who seek protection, beginning with the persecution they experience in their own nations, their flight to seek safety, the effects on them of prolonged detention, particularly on vulnerable people.  

This exploration of experience invites its readers not to imagine people who seek asylum as a problem to be dealt with, but to see them as people like ourselves in need. Through this lens they criticise severely the way in which governments of both major parties have treated asylum seekers, sketches the outlines of a humane policy based on assessing their claims in Australia, and offers ways in which Catholics can express their compassion and can demand a better way.  

The core argument of the Statement is that Australian policy treats living people as things. Their brutal treatment is a means to a policy end.

As a nation, we harm innocent people by detaining them, pushing back their boats and transferring them to other impoverished nations. We pretend that the pain and diminishment of one group of people, including children, is a justifiable price to pay for sending a message to others. This policy dishonours the human dignity of people who seek protection and denies the truth of their humanity.

In its uncompromising moral judgment the statement takes a hard approach to a hard issue. It will be accused by some of lacking rigour because it fails to take full account of the Australian reality.

This reality is that when people were able to find protection in Australia after arriving by boat, the number of the people who took to boats and died on them increased massively. This led to such popular hostility to on-shore asylum seekers that no political party can now hope to gain support if it does not stop the boats.

In this situation, the critics will say, general appeals for justice and compassion by Pope and bishops will do nothing for the people they represent. They must recognise the necessity to stop the boats and propose practical steps by which the policy can be made more humane.    

This criticism is right in pointing to the need to work at ways of reducing the harm done to people by Australian policies. But the statement recognises also that efforts to change policy and to minimise harm will be ineffective as long as people regard them as enemies.

To support any alleviation of their treatment Australians will need to see asylum seekers as people with feelings and desires like their own, whose sufferings deserve sympathy and whose demonisation and ill-treatment merit outrage.

The last word can be left with a young man quoted in the statement: 'It is our mistake we were born in this world. Everywhere we will be threatened. Even when we came to Australia there is also no mercy to look after us.'  

To call for mercy and justice may not be enough. But to do so is still owed to the young man and his companions. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Australian Bishops, Social Justice Statement, asylum seekers, refugees



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Existing comments

We should all treat all human beings with respect and assist them to the best of our ability. What I find hard to understand is that it appears that Islam is running from Islam. Why is it that people that are terrorised by terrorist regimes continue to support a faith based on dogma and ideology that encourages hatred, violence and sanctions the murder of the infidel. Has Islamic ideology finally caught up with itself has it finally been shown to Muslims and the world of a faith that has done nothing but lived by the sword. Clearly Australians fear that this ideology could bring violence and terrorism to our shores as that what Islam preaches, you only have to read its texts of a 157 passages of violence and head chopping to realise what values it stands for. I am not islamofobic, I just think you should bother reading the beliefs of these people to understand their values that helps explain terrorism and violence we see today. Muslims are not our enemy but their ideology is if it professes bio once to those that do not believe in their pagan god.

Paul Camilleri | 09 September 2015  

This message is spot-on. We must keep talking positively about welcoming ALL those seeking refuge in Australia.

Patricia Kennedy | 09 September 2015  

This is so timely. I have had a few people who consider themselves committed Catholics make subtle anti-refugee comments to me. Everyone needs moral guidance around this issue. It is so easy to put refugees - people from places far far away -in the category of 'different' and to unwittingly come up with an excuse to de-humanise them. We need our Bishops and Pope to set us right on this.

George | 09 September 2015  

Well put, Fr Andrew. When it is all said & done, it is what is done (by Australia FOR refugees' human needs) that counts. As you wrote: "This (current Australian detention of refugees) policy dishonours the human dignity of people who seek protection and denies the truth of their humanity." Let us ALL tell our local politicians this & discuss this current unjust policy within our own circle of contacts.

John Cronin, Toowoomba | 09 September 2015  

Well said! We must also remember those including The Greens and Mr Abbott who destroyed the beginnings of a "Malaysia solution" i.e. the processing of asylum seekers before they had to get on boats. The horrible Abbott-esque demonising of "illegals" who are not illegal! . And All for narrow political gain.

Eugene | 09 September 2015  

I appreciated the argument and sentiments expressed by Andrew but found the break-up of the text by an ad. for the Saturday Paper extremely irritating and counter-productive.

John | 10 September 2015  

Paul, you say “a faith that has done nothing but lived by the sword.” Suicide bombings were almost unheard of in the Muslim world even after the 1967 war with Israel; 1,840 happened between the early 1980s and 2008, with more than 86 percent after 2001, and mainly in US-occupied Afghanistan and Iraq.
I have found “A World without Islam” by the former CIA official Graham E Fuller, to be a fascinating book which documents religion as a vehicle for achieving the essentially local political and economic ends of ethnic and national groups; it is often harnessed to a cause, but is not the underlying driver. I wonder if the angry Christian warriors know that, according to Fuller, Islam acknowledges Jesus as a great Prophet and miracle worker, who was born of the Virgin Mary (the 19th chapter of the Qur’an is entitled “Mary” – Miriam in Arabic).
Those who talk of a generic “Islam” should consider the case of Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world, a secular republic, where religious-based parties have minor influence. In fact, the Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesian President from 1999-2001, recognised Confucianism as a mandated religion, and wanted to recognise Israel.

Kevin Bain | 10 September 2015  

Unfortunately our Church has no strategy in place to evangelise Muslims, so little wonder there is a reluctance among the public to open our door too wide. History tells us the sad consequences of Islamic expansionism - but, of course, we have forgotten history - and most of us are theologically illiterate in regard to Islam (including our Church leaders). As Christians we should be seeking to free Muslims from their spiritual bondage imposed by their intolerant and violent religion of conquest. For the sake of their salvation and for the sake of a peaceful Oz in future years. Unfortunately, multiculturalism has sapped the confidence of many of us to proclaim the Gospel, but not all. Many Muslims are hungering to know God; in their hearts their ideological beliefs do not satisfy. We either evangelise them or slowly submit to sharia law as the Islamification of Oz progresses.

Libby Rotolo | 11 September 2015  

Libby said Islam is an "intolerant and violent religion of conquest", but Joseph S Nye, the Harvard historian who coined the "soft power" concept, has a wider perspective: "in Europe, wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants lasted for nearly a century and a half. The fighting ended (with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) only after Germany lost a quarter of its population in the Thirty Years’ War. But it is also worth remembering that the coalitions of that time were complex, with Catholic France aiding Dutch Protestants against Catholic Habsburgs for dynastic rather than religious reasons. We should expect similar complexity in today’s Middle East." Read more at https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/how-to-fight-the-islamic-state-by-joseph-s--nye-2015-09

Kevin Bain | 13 September 2015  

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