Which refugees would Jesus resettle?


A woman goes up to Jesus to plead for her daughter's life. Jesus won't even look at her: she's a Canaanite, from a despised people long regarded as an enemy of the Jewish people. When she continues to beg for his help, he says, dismissively, 'I am here to help only people of the Jewish faith, my own people. Helping you would be like taking food away from children and tossing it to a dog.'

xxxxxThe Canaanite woman retorts, 'Call me a dog if you want, but if there are crumbs that fall off the children's table, surely even you wouldn't mind this dog licking the crumbs up.'

Her wit and her tenacity, born of love and desperation, wins Jesus over: her daughter is saved.

The Australian government's announcement in September that it would permanently resettle 12,000 refugees from Syria, in addition to the 13,750 humanitarian intake quota that current policy already allows for, justifiably received universal praise and welcome.

It is unfortunate that this important step forward, in a political environment that has not been generally sympathetic to people overseas seeking safety from conflict and persecution, has encountered prejudice and self-interest in the form of voices calling for the 12,000 places to be given predominantly, and even exclusively, to Christians.

There are claims that Christians are under-represented in the Syrian refugee camps, because the camps are dominated by Muslims and therefore unsafe for Christians. Further, it is claimed that it is only in the camps that the UNHCR, tasked with identifying those most in need of resettlement, registers refugees.

This is patently not the truth. There are 1.3 million Syrian refugees registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon: all of them live in the Lebanese community, as there are no Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. How are Christians being excluded from resettlement for not being in camps in Lebanon, when in fact no Syrian refugee — Muslim, Christian, or otherwise — is in a camp?

Of the 633,000 refugees registered by the UNHCR in Jordan as of November this year, only 20 per cent live in the two refugee camps in that country. It is clear that the UNHCR registration is not limited to camp refugees even in a country such as Jordan, where two camps do in fact exist.

Let us be clear: lurking under all the justifications for privileging Christians is a toxic fear and dislike of Muslims. The UNHCR guidelines for resettlement are there for a reason: those who need resettlement, when this option is available, are the most vulnerable and weak in a refugee population, namely children and teenagers, women at risk, people with urgent medical needs, the elderly, victims of torture and trauma, split families, et al. None of these should be subject to a religious test.

As several Muslim commentators have said in the Australian media, you do not ask a drowning person her religion before rescuing her.

The Christian church does not exist to preserve itself, or promote its own wellbeing. It is a sacramental presence, a sign of God's loving purposes for all of his creation. If we celebrate anything at Christmas, it is the supreme sign of God's love for humanity: the coming of Jesus, the eternal son made flesh.

It is that same Jesus who was so challenged by the desperation and love of a mother that he moved beyond the prejudices and anxieties that good and pious Jews felt towards non-Jews. Let us who call ourselves Christians do likewise with the other in our midst.


Aloysious MoweAloysious Mowe SJ is Director of Jesuit Refugee Service.

Pictured: Ghada looks out over the city of Jbeil, Lebanon, where she has lived for nearly a year since her family left Syria (Andy Ash).

Topic tags: Aloysious Mowe, Jesuit Refugee Service, Syria, refugee, asylum seekers, Lebanon, Christmas



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Existing comments

"The Christian church does not exist to preserve itself, or promote its own wellbeing." How often and how thoroughly we forget this.

Jim Jones | 15 December 2015  

"The Christian Church does not exist to preserve itself or promote its own wellbeing." Time to do away with 2000 years of evangelisation then???? "Which refugees would Jesus re-settle?" A question without any prospect of a definitive answer. It is like asking, "Would Jesus sell his BHP shares in the wake of the recent catastrophic mining disaster affecting so-many peoples lives.

john frawley | 15 December 2015  

I dare say that if we took Jesus' words literally, the Catholic Church would not exist today (as we know it).

AURELIUS | 15 December 2015  

John, it's not about doing away with evangelisation, but taking it literally and reclaiming the tags "fundamentalist" and "radical". We still see the basic message of Jesus as some lefty trendy ideology.

AURELIUS | 15 December 2015  

May the Jesuit Refugee Service continue its wonderful work in 2016 - and welcome refugees of all faiths and nationalities on our behalf!

Jo Mercer | 15 December 2015  

Beautiful, Aloysious.

Pam | 15 December 2015  

You don't ask a drowning person her religion, but do you ask a drowning person his religion? There is a gender basis to the wariness about Muslims which attaches to young, healthy, able-bodied men, exactly the type of entrant a country would prefer in more normal times but the profile of an extremist mischief-maker in these abnormal times. Would the wariness be there if all the Muslim refugees were female or elderly or disabled? The UNHCR guidelines are to protect the vulnerable and the weak, but family groups are a package, not all of whose members are 'weak'. Perhaps, with the wheat, might come a tare or two? When the Apostles became fed up with dealing with the practical difficulties of administration, the meeting of needs under conditions of scarcity, they appointed deacons to sort out the problems, without the benefit of miracles like feeding five thousand with a few loaves and fish, or paying a temple tax by getting a fish with money in its belly to hook itself to Peter's line. The deacons got no divine free lunches like that and, unfortunately, neither do one class of their present day descendants, our governments.

Roy Chen Yee | 15 December 2015  

Which refugees would Jesus resettle - surely those in most need. If there is a choice between able-bodied men having many thousands of dollars to pay criminal gangs of people smugglers to travel long distances around the world with the aim of settling in an affluent western country and destitute and desperate women and children suffering great hardship in refugee camps in Africa and Asia then surely the answer is obvious.

franklin | 15 December 2015  

John, there was some talk of settling persecuted Christians. Kite flying. It never amounted to anything. The interviewing and sorting process has no reference to religion. The premise of your opinion has no relation to the situation.

John | 16 December 2015  

Religion would clarify whether a person really is in need i.e. non-Muslims are being persecuted and killed. Easy solution. And no terrorists in the non-Muslim lot either.

Michael | 18 December 2015  

Just as you don't ask a drowning person their religion before rescuing, I've often wondered why people of different nations are called Muslim?

Mary | 19 December 2015  

"The Christian church does not exist to preserve itself, or promote its own wellbeing." that's an interesting philosophical statement?

Mary | 19 December 2015  

If we celebrate anything at Christmas, it is the supreme sign of God's love for humanity: the coming of Jesus, the eternal son made made man.. John 1: 14.

AO | 22 December 2015  

Error, result of typing too quickly: not 'made' man, but made 'flesh'.No intention to go against the Nicene creed, Fr JG.

AO | 08 January 2016  

Very important article thank you. The reminder of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman is particularly poignant, not least because ancient Canaan is incorporated in parts of modern day Lebanon, Syria and Jordan - the epicentre of the refugee crisis. Selecting only or predominantly Christian refugees is a very dangerous and unworthy option, dangerous not least for the Christian minorities left behind in IS controlled areas.

Noelle Fitzpatrick | 11 January 2016  

That's like saying that our Lord wouldn't want us to give any priority to Jews among those fleeing from the Nazis.

Ronk | 05 March 2016  

The woman won over Jesus with her courageous response. May it also win over our hearts as we look at these people who need a safe home after their terrifying adventure.

Johanna Blows | 20 June 2016  

Jesus would turn only the evil away and I don't believe there are too many of those This is so uncomfortable for us, because it might interfere with our very comfortable lives. It is difficult, so we just keep accepting what is unfair and so cruel. This, I believe, is the truth.

Catherine | 14 July 2016  

Last Sunday's Gospel reading was the Parable of the Good Samaritan which I believe goes a very long way to answering Aloysious 'question what would Jesus do?. While we look to the 'Official' response of the Church to this question and it strongly rejects the current policy, I wish to ask what are we as members of the Church community doing ourselves to promote Jesus message? Sadly the Church sometimes forgets that it does not exist to promote its own wellbeing. Sadly I see evidence of that lapse all too often, but the church membership is human and we are human after all. Hopefully we can learn from Jesus teaching.

Gavin | 14 July 2016  

Thank you for your article. Unfortunately the fear and dislike of Muslims that you mention is pervasive and insidious. A colleague of mine recently quite openly aired his views on this subject and he is not in the minority. We have become a nation of xenophobes. The argument in this case was that they (the refugees) don't want to change but instead want to spread their views and customs. The person in question failed to acknowledge that history is littered with instances of domination, exploitation and even decimation and often in the name of Christianity. Does love have limits? The message of Jesus is clear.

Jo | 14 July 2016  

The first five words of ---,John 3:16 seem to infer that God's love includes all creation.. eg. "God so loved the world ". can we , as His people do less?

David | 14 July 2016  

Thank you for this important commentary, Aloysius. Though I am an atheist, I have friends who profess a variety of faiths, including several Muslim friends in Indonesian. Compassion, love, caring are options for all of us for everyone else, regardless of religion and other specifics. They enrich our society. Much of Australian refugee policy demeans Australian society. It shames me as an Australian. And we see the prejudice and ill-informed anger that it is generating. Keep up your good work. Peter

Peter Newcombe | 14 July 2016  

The fear generated by the open door policy espoused by some refugee advocates is the primary reason for the non Christian views. If we only accepted refugees accepted by the UNHCR a lot of the mistrust would disappear. Should that not be the first step?

angela | 14 July 2016  

With all due respect I find hypothetical questions of the "What would so and so do?" serve no useful purpose. Except maybe for satire as in " What would Putin do?"

Uncle Pat | 14 July 2016  

Imagine if we lived in a society, not an economy.

Paul W Malone | 15 July 2016  

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