American Jesuits Take a Stand on behalf of Refugees
Beirut-Lebanon: These are tumultuous times for the United States and in fact, for a good part of the world. President Donald Trump is being true to his campaign promises. In just about ten days after his inauguration, he has signed several controversial executive orders. These include, imposing a 120-day suspension of the refugee programme and a 90-day ban on travel to the US from citizens of seven countries which are regarded as ‘terror hot spots’: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.
Additionally, there are orders to build a US-Mexico border wall, to publish a weekly list of ‘criminal actions by aliens’ in Sanctuary Cities (besides stripping these cities of federal funding), and to ramp up immigration enforcement and deportation efforts. These orders have naturally polarized several sections of society, besides generating massive protests in the US and elsewhere. Civil society and institutions committed to human rights, justice, freedom and peace, find these orders illegal, cruel and misguided.
The Jesuits of America have not lost time in taking a courageous and unequivocal stand on behalf of the refugees, the migrants and the excluded. As early as November 17th 2016( just a week after the results of the Presidential Elections), Fr Leo J. O’Donovan, sj , the Executive Director, of the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA,set the tone and spirit, with a letter addressed to ‘Friends and Fellow Americans’ saying, “How shall JRS/USA respond to this situation? How shall we respond to the spectre of fear, selfishness, and lack of compassion that appears before us?
First, let me say clearly that the divisive election campaign and its surprising outcome can only serve to reinforce JRS’s commitment to our mission to accompany, serve, and defend the rights of refugees in the United States and throughout the world. This commitment is absolute. It stands on the foundation of the teachings of the Church that we are all equally children of God and are related to each other in equal dignity as one family. In this context, our commitment to support and to speak out for the most vulnerable people, giving comfort, companionship and education to those otherwise forgotten and bringing the voice of the voiceless to the seats of power is un-shakeable. It is in fact even more important at this uncertain time”.
Fr O’Donovan followed that path-breaking letter with an ‘Open Letter’ addressed to President Trump on the day of his inauguration (January 20th 2017), emphatically stating that, “our country’s welcome of these newcomers expresses who we are as a people. It is a sign of our commitment to the rights of refugees to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution. It reflects our desire to respond to the call of the Jewish and Christian scriptures to welcome strangers among us, especially those in danger or great need. It is rooted in the recognition that all men and women possess a shared human dignity and, in the eyes of faith, are sons and daughters of a loving Creator who calls us together as one human family”.
The letter was also a challenge, “Mr. President, the generosity of the United States in response to the needs of refugees is a source of our reputation as “the last best hope of humankind” and expresses our highest moral values”; with a final appeal, “when you consider actions you might take to fulfill your promise to make America great again, remember the greatness of heart that is at the foundation of just and humane U.S. refugee assistance. Our nation and our world look to you for a magnanimous response to those who have been forced from their homes”.
Jesuits run several Universities in the US, which include some of the most prestigious ones. In the wake of these executive orders the Presidents of almost all these Universities, have issued powerful statements reiterating their commitment to Gospel values, Jesuit identity, human rights and to a welcoming, inclusive and diverse American society. The President of Georgetown University for one, states, “Our Catholic and Jesuit identity provides the foundation for our lives together. Guided by our mission, we have placed a special emphasis on inter religious dialogue and our openness to different faith traditions and cultures. This includes our efforts to support a diverse and vibrant Muslim community on campus.”
The Boston College President is categorical, “The order is also contrary to American understandings of this nation’s role as a refuge and its place as a society that does not discriminate on the basis of religion or national origin.” Whereas Marquette University reaffirms, “More than 135 years ago, Marquette University served a booming German population that fled failed revolutions in Europe and came to America in search of democracy and human rights. Today our Catholic and Jesuit tradition calls us to speak out. We stand with our international students and any other student whose family is impacted by this evolving situation.”
The statement from the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. minced no words, “as members of a global religious order that works to form men and women of conscience and compassion, we denounce the Trump Administration’s Executive Order suspending and barring refugees and banning nationals of seven countries as an affront to our mission and an assault on American and Christian values….. We will continue that work, defending and standing in solidarity with all children of God, whether Muslim or Christian. The world is deeply troubled, and many of our brothers and sisters are justifiably terrified. Our Catholic and Jesuit identity calls us to welcome the stranger and to approach different faith traditions and cultures with openness and understanding. We must not give in to fear. We must continue to defend human rights and religious liberty. As Pope Francis said, ‘You cannot be a Christian without living like a Christian.’”
Jesuits in America are certainly not the only ones speaking out against these orders. Several others are doing so from across the board: church and other religious leaders, academics and intellectuals, lawyers and civil rights activists, corporate leaders and ordinary citizens – there is without doubt a groundswell of protest. The Jesuit response has been consistent with their faith- justice mandate. An added motivation for the Jesuit stand, could also be from their recent General Congregation 36, which emphatically states in the first Decree, “The letter of Father General, Adolfo Nicolás on reconciliation and the teaching of Pope Francis have given this vision greater depth, placing faith, justice, and solidarity with the poor and the excluded as central elements of the mission of reconciliation.
Rather than ask what we should do, we seek to understand how God invites us-and so many people of goodwill-to share in that great work” (D.1#3) and On The displacement of peoples (refugees, migrants, and internally displaced peoples): In the face of attitudes hostile to these displaced persons, our faith invites the Society to promote everywhere a more generous culture of hospitality. The Congregation recognizes the necessity of promoting the international articulation of our service to migrants and refugees, finding ways of collaboration with JRS. (D.1#26a)
What impact will the stand of the American Jesuits have on these orders is anyone’s guess. Some of Trumps key personnel are Jesuit alumni, besides there are many others who wear their Christian label on their sleeve. Will their hearts melt? Will their consciences be pricked? Will they climb down from this unchristian position? Tough questions to answer but the world wants to know. On the other hand, will the Jesuits now have to face consequences and other repercussions? The American Jesuits and their collaborators however, through their committed and courageous stand, have given America and the world, particularly the refugees, migrants and the excluded, a wholehearted assurance: “come what may, we stand by you!” A new hope! An example worthy of emulation by others everywhere: Jesuits and non-Jesuits alike!