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Some Heed Pope Francis's Call to Succor Refugees, Others Look Away

  • Reuters

Pope Francis blesses a child during a special audience with Vatican employees for Christmas greetings at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Dec. 21, 2015.

Pope Francis blesses a child during a special audience with Vatican employees for Christmas greetings at the Paul VI hall at the Vatican, Dec. 21, 2015.

One Catholic parish in Germany tore out its pews to make space for refugees. Franciscan monks near Rome took a family into their hilltop convent.

But in northern Italy, a rural priest faced hostility when he asked his flock to shelter Muslims.

Four months after Pope Francis appealed to the parishes and religious communities of Europe to each take in one family of refugees, the response is decidedly mixed.

Arms have opened wide in some places but indifference, bureaucracy, fear, and xenophobia have reared their heads elsewhere, particularly after the attack by Islamist militants who killed 130 people in Paris last month.

Around a million migrants arrived by sea in Europe in 2015, with some 3,700 dying, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Some of them, if Francis is heeded, should be heading to safety among the roughly 120,000 Catholic parishes in Europe

But in Italy — which with more than 25,000 has the largest number of parishes — only about 1,000 have responded, according to Father Giancarlo Perego, head of the Church-affiliated Migrantes Foundation. Another 1,500 families had offered to host refugees.

Perego and other Church officials pointed out, however, that many Catholic parishes were already supporting refugee services well before the pope's appeal.

Italian bishops have published a "How To" booklet for parishes, dealing with everything from how to prepare parishioners for the arrival of refugees, legal issues, and a glossary explaining terms such as asylum and repatriation.

When Francis announced the initiative on Sept. 6, he set the example by welcoming two families into the Vatican's own two parishes.

Mixed welcome

Many of the migrants entering Europe have headed to Germany, where the Catholic Church is one of the richest in Europe, partly because of a Church tax on members, and which has an institutional tradition of helping refugees.

More than 3,000 staff members work full time to help refugees and are backed up by about 100,000 volunteers, according to a spokesperson.
St. Benedikt's parish in the northern port city of Bremen removed pews and confessionals and converted the church into a temporary refugee shelter.

"This is our duty. We can't sing Christmas carols about opening doors to those in need and at the same time refuse to let anyone enter," said one of its priests, Father Johannes Sczyrba.

St. Roch church in Brussels opened its doors at night and now shelters about 200 refugees.

"The numbers grow and grow and grow. It's like a little explosion," said Father Hugo Van Gee.

Gilles Cnockaert, spokesman for Catholic charity Caritas International, said the pope's call was "like an electrical shock" for Belgian Catholics and prompted more than 550 people to offer to house asylum seekers.
But it had not all been welcoming.

A number of Catholic prelates, particularly in Eastern Europe, were less than eager and warned of the long-term effects that migrants, most of them Muslim, could have on local culture.

"We are not being xenophobic or inhospitable," said Bishop Piotr Libera of Plock in central Poland. "We are being wise. If you let a stranger into your home, into a home that is just being built, a small home, a home that is frail, you may get yourself into a great deal of trouble".

In Italy, a major gateway into Europe for migrants, it has also been mixed.

The Rome newspaper La Repubblica said only 80 of Rome's more than 300 parishes had responded to Francis' call. The response was much lower in other Italian cities, the paper reported.

Parishioners of the church of San Saturnino in an up-scale Rome neighbourhood refurbished a two-room apartment for three African refugees. They take turns helping them shop and cook.

Father Michael Perry, worldwide head of one of the branches of the Franciscan order, said monks in a convent south of Rome had taken in a refugee family and another convent in the central Rome neighbourhood of Trastevere was housing 15 people.

But the appeal has also run into stubborn resistance, including in some areas of northern Italy where anti-immigrant feelings run high and defending regional identity has long been a political battle cry.

In September Father Lucio Mozzo, who looks after six rural parishes, called a meeting to see how parishioners felt about housing a family of Syrian refugees in a disused vicarage.

"My grandfather built that place for priests, not for Muslims," one man shouted.

Perry, the Franciscan leader, said he sensed that the Paris attacks had made some Catholics more hesitant and wary.