It was in early September last year when Pope Francis made his plea to the crowds gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for the parishes and religious communities of Europe to take in one refugee family. By that time we had all witnessed the brutality, the ugliness, and the horror of the effects of the European Union’s inhuman indifference to the atrocious suffering of people caught up in a human tragedy it had help to create. Only four days before he asked this of his Church we saw with trembling shame and disgust the lifeless body of baby Alan Kurdi lying face down in the sand. Francis, like the rest of us, was powerless, yet his request was a resounding call to resistance; to reassert our humanity.
Thousands of our sisters and brothers have now perished in their pilgrimage of life to Europe, and among them Alan was not the only – not the last – child. Every single day our comfort in our new McDonalds and Starbucks Europe is defended from a sea of washed up bodies and petrified survivors we refuse to love. Every one of those lost and each one of those still living that we reject as our sister or our brother are on our heads. We are accountable for each of them because we have not done enough. Have we no pity? Have we no memory, compassion, or love?
On his return from the island of Lesbos, where he witnessed the conditions of the refugees and the work being done by volunteers, he welcomed three Syrian refugee families at Rome’s airport. These people are not the “Christian Syrians” that the EU would prefer to welcome, but Muslim families fleeing the horror of war in their country, and these people will be joining other Syrian refugees already welcomed to sanctuary in the Vatican. On the surface of this we can comment that this gesture is nothing but another public relations stunt. It may well be, but then Rome, seeing itself above media and popularity, has never engaged in stunts, and what we know of Francis is that he is a man who is doing only what he has always done.
Something more powerful has happened in this gesture. Europe’s popular discussion on the Middle East, the war in Syria, and Islam has always been about ‘religion,’ and the destructive influence this primitivism has on human civilisation. In this the secularists of the neoliberal European project have sought to distance themselves from the catastrophe they themselves have created. Through Europe’s emerging right-wing the conversation has turned to the Islamisation of Europe and the threat to ‘our [Christian] culture.’ In living what he has preached, Francis – in one swoop – has torn from secularism its mask of pretended neutrality by reclaiming religion as a place of justice and peace, and answered the right by showing that hospitality and welcome can be a way of reclaiming our Christianity by our love for our Muslim sisters and brothers.