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Crossing boundaries with the wire-cutter Pope



Lesbos is famous for crossing boundaries. It was the home of the poet Sappho and the tender, delicate lyrics dedicated to the woman who was her lover.

Francis on LesbosMore recently it has been the home of refugees who have crossed from the murderous conflict in Asia to seek protection in Europe.

Now it is an island whose sea boundaries have been strengthened with barbed wire to keep people out of Europe before being pushed across Greek boundaries back to their old enemy, Turkey, and from there to God knows where.

Pope Francis is also as famous for crossing boundaries as we Australians are for mining and patrolling them. He is reinventing the papacy as a one-man barbed-wire-cutting team.

So it is not surprising that he decided at short notice to cross into Lesbos. He undertook his travel when he realised that the people seeking protection on Lesbos were being put into enclosed camps, facing deportation to Turkey, and perhaps return to the mortal danger from which they fled.

He went to meet vulnerable people, seeing the terror and need in their faces, listening to them speak of all that they and their families had suffered. He grieved with them and spoke plainly, saying that the European political leaders would be judged by the way in which they treated people claiming protection.

He did not go to Lesbos alone but accompanied two Greek Bishops, one of them the Ecumenical Patriarch, his equal in dignity and historical resonance.

The three men were drawn together in compassion and horror at what was suffered and at what was being devised for human beings like themselves. That enabled them to set aside the bitter historical differences between their churches and the protocols in which these divisions were protected.


"He grieved with them and spoke plainly, saying that the European political leaders would be judged by the way in which they treated people claiming protection."


Together they dropped wreaths into the sea to grieve the deaths of so many who lost their lives escaping death, and to repent of the cruelty they now endure in Europe.

Returning on the plane, he brought with him 12 people, members of three families. One was disabled, another seriously ill. And all three families were Muslim. Difficulties with papers prevented Christian families from also being chosen.

At a time when anti-Muslim prejudice has grown in Europe, here was the proud and defiant statement to Christian and secular Europe that Muslims are our brothers and sisters calling on our love in their need. And here was a practical demonstration of the welcome that love inspires and for which it will not tolerate delay until the right people are there to be welcomed.

In Australia we do things rather differently. Here people seeking protection are long accustomed to languish in detention on the mainland, on Christmas Island, on Nauru and on Manus Island. They go unvisited by any angel of mercy. No judgment is spoken on the political parties that imprison them.

The two leaders of our political parties travel together, not on a path of compassion and welcome but, united by their political antipathy, on a path of ever more harsh rejection.

Francis took one day to bring to his country 12 people seeking protection. Our leaders have taken more than a year to bring less than 200. He took unhesitatingly people who were ill and people who were Muslims. We have been promised that the beliefs and health of any people whom we take will be carefully screened and taken into account before they are allowed into Australia.

In Europe, Francis will be praised for his compassion and criticised for his unrealistic attitudes to the 'refugee problem'. In Australia our leaders will be praised both for the brutal realism of their solution to the 'refugee problem' and for their lack of compassion.

Many Australians, of course, will praise Francis for refusing to make vulnerable people into problems, and for crossing over to befriend them. But how many of us will walk his brave path?


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, Lesbos, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Thank you Andrew. As always, your clarity is both a challenge and an inspiration.

JOB | 19 April 2016  

This was an act of charity, compassion and, in the best sense, defiance by Pope Francis. We can hope it will not be lost on political leaders. With an election looming here, the church and secular supporters must continue to give voice to priority being given to helping refugees in need.

Pam | 19 April 2016  

"...all three families were Muslim. Difficulties with papers prevented Christian families from also being chosen." Perhaps most memorable of the images for me was Pope Francis standing before signs from the Yazidi people begging for help. Yes he highlighted the plight of refugees but he also sent a very mixed message by only taking home Muslims refugees. (The excuse that no Christians had paper work ready sounds pretty lame) There comes a point in every popular leaders rise, when his minders over-spend the good will he has accumulated. I believe history will show that this event was that turning point.

Olivia | 19 April 2016  

I quite agree with your feelings on the moral bankruptcy of Australian "boat-people" policy and the positive and imaginative feature of Francis on going to Lesbos etc. But: restraining refugees from travelling very dangerously across seas and land boundaries seems sensible policy for the common good. Refugees should have to register in the first safe-haven country, be provided by the internationa community with decent and safe accommodation and then be processed and settled around the world equitably as quickly as possible (though that might take some years) or if the conflict they are escaping from is likely to be short-lived, return them home asap. Allowing the current lethally dangerous free-for-all would seem to me to be irresponsible madness.

Eugene | 19 April 2016  

Pope Francis would surely have asked his Secretary of State , or other Vatican foreign policy advisers, what he could do as Head of a city state with regard to bringing refugees (of any persuasion) to Vatican City. Surely the pros and cons would have been laid out before him. He would surely have been apprised of the consequences of his action. More than any papal encyclical or exhortation he has promulgated the message of Christ's parable of The Good Samaritan. St Mary Mackillop would have been proud of him. It's the sort of thing she would have done. It's the sort of thing Mary's daughters, the Sisters of St Joseph. are doing in Australia within their limited resources and capabilities. It's an idle thought but I have sometimes wondered what would have happened if Egyptian government officials had barred the entry of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus when his parents were fleeing Palestine with a well-founded fear that their child's life was threatened.

Uncle Pat | 19 April 2016  

Thanks Andrew. May we all do what we can to help asylum seekers both those in Australia and those trying to come here, from offshore 'hell holes' or elsewhere. I admire the Church leaders and communities that are opening their Church doors and offering sanctuary to these desperate people. This Government and recent Australian Governments will go down in history infamously for their lack of compassion and humanity. I believe this inhumanity all started with John Howard and the Tampa crisis, which Howard used to help him win an election, and has continued bi-laterally to this day. Australians who have a moral compass are already defying this Government with the 'Love Makes a Way' actions, Church sanctuary civil disobedience, health workers speaking about the desperate situation in Nauru, etc. I ask all you readers to do what you can to defy this Government and its cruel immigration policies. Asylum seekers have already been deported from Australia, only to suffer death on their return. Many others are also now absolutely terrified of such deportation. Let us not only hear their cry for 'HELP!' but ACT ON IT. OUR HUMANITY DEPENDS ON IT, AS DOES THE HEALING OF OUR NATIONAL PSYCHE!

Grant Allen | 19 April 2016  

The action of Francis was symbolic showing the need for compassion when dealing with such refugees. But what of those who were not chosen? Would they understand or just be furious that others were taken ahead of them?

Adrian Bellemore | 19 April 2016  

The Good Samaritan lives in the actions of Pope Francis. If there is one thing that is clear in his exhortation it is to 'go do likewise.' May we be not found wanting in Australia in spite of the immoral policy of our government towards asylum seekers and refugees.

Ern Azzopardi | 19 April 2016  

Great writing Andrew. You give all Aussies with hearts courage that good things may yet come again to our land in terms of compassion/fellow-feeling for refugees fleeing injustices - as opposed to the dreadful ugly policies of the LNP - largely, too, of the ALP - betraying latter 20th century ideals! Just this morning at Mexico-city airport - visited just six months or so ago by Pope Francis - I found a small pendant featuring his face and the statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe - who appeared to the pre-Spanish "Native" inhabitants in that early contact era. I applaud Pope Francis for his actions in this case - an example to the closed cold hearts of Europe's political "masters" and for the involvement of his Orthodox counterpart, too. Thank-you.

Jim KABLE | 19 April 2016  

Why is is that our political leaders, most of whom are ex-lawyers, cannot develop a creative and humane yet practical response to the refugee dilemma, similar to the actions of Pope Francis? World leaders must get used to the idea that the refugee 'problem' is not a passing phase but one that Climate Change, growing radical religious fundamentalism and economic factors in third world countries will cast as a permanent phenomena in our world. The response of Pope Francis takes me back to the Tampa incident when Helen Clarke the NZ PM said to those we rejected, "Come". After all, they are our brothers and sisters, no matter what their religious label. The money expended on keeping them away or in camps could be halved, at least, by a creative, compassionate response. "Come, come aboard the Papal aircraft, you are in need."

William Hartley | 19 April 2016  

While living in England,through my friend, Gillian Bouras, in Greece I receive Andrew Hamilton's writings for which I am ever grateful. As an ex-Australian I am appalled by the Australian Government's tr treatment of refugees.

Meriel Wilmot-Wright | 19 April 2016  

We have jettisoned all our Aussie values of brotherly love/caring/Fair Go in favour of being Greedy/Uncaring and Self gratification/ I do hope we realise the folly of our ways and return to Our Former Ways

Maurice O'Reilly | 19 April 2016  

God foresaw all things from before anything was created. Was the Pope wrong not to take home a few Christians as well? Popes are meant to be prophets, not so much to divine futures but to analyse the times in which they live and some prophets might have trouble holding onto honour in their own constituencies. At least one priest, prophet and king did, when he recounted to the fellow villagers with whom he had grown up of a time when there were many widows in Israel because God had shut the sky for three and a half years and caused a great famine to come over all the land, but Elijah was not sent to any of them but to a foreigner. Prophets do what they are supposed to do, no matter how mysterious those things may seem to the sheep.

Roy Chen Yee | 21 April 2016  

Perhaps we shouldn't blame our poor country too much. The difference between Francis' Vatican State and us is that whatever the Vatican does is meant explicitly to be for the glory of God. If Francis seems to show an especial tenderness for members of a faith whose classical teachings do call for the subjugation of Christians and Jews, it may be because he is telling the Muslim world that his Trinitarian God, unlike their unitarian one, is Love. As one of those countries where, as the law demands, the Trinitarian God is not to be treated as a reality but as an optional private idiosyncrasy, any act of Australian state charity is a glorification of Australian man, following the Pied Piper call of the pagan French Revolution that God is unnecessary for a paradise of liberty, egality and fraternity. And when Australia has admitted for resettlement every refugee and asylum seeker in the world, what will that have proved except Lucifer's thesis that holiness doesn't have to come from God. Perhaps those religion-professing refugees can't come here because even poor people deserve better than an Augean stables in which the ego of homo australicus is the measure of all things.

Roy Chen Yee | 21 April 2016  

The more articles I read by Father Hamilton, the more I admire the work he has done, and his speaking out loudly and clearly for truth and justice. With more men like this in the world, who also command respect and have earned the power and privileges gained from education and humanitarian work, there would be a brighter future for those who have no voice and a very bleak future. Thank you.

Annabel | 25 May 2016  

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