VATICAN CITY –– Catholic laity have an obligation to root out traces of xenophobia in their hearts and recognize refugees as their brothers and sisters – children of God whose dignity must be protected, said a new Vatican document.
"Welcoming Christ in Refugees and Forcibly Displaced Persons," a document of pastoral guidelines for providing material and spiritual assistance to people forced to leave their homes was published June 6 by the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Travelers and the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, which promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable activity.
Since the mid-1980s, the document said, the debate surrounding refugees and other asylum seekers has become "a forum for political and administrative election purposes, which fed hostile and aggressive attitudes among the electorate."
In effect, countries are focused more on deterring newcomers from reaching their shores than they are on offering protection and a welcome to suffering people fleeing situations that threatened their lives and dignity, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, president of the council for migrants and travelers, told reporters.
From a Catholic point of view, he said at a Vatican news conference, "every policy, initiative or intervention in this area must be inspired by the principle of the centrality and dignity of the human person."
Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of Cor Unum, said being Christian means trying to meet both the material and spiritual needs of refugees and displaced people, who "ask us for a commitment of love that first of all restores their dignity as persons made in the image and likeness of God."
"Along with bread, they need love that nourishes their spiritual dimension," Cardinal Sarah said, and that love is precisely what gives witness to "the love with which Christ loves us and saves us."
The new document from the two councils was designed to update their 1992 document, "Refugees, A Challenge to Solidarity." In addition to the more restrictive policies many countries have adopted since 1992 – including because of the threats of terrorism and because of the global economic crisis – the new document focuses more on the dangers of human trafficking and on the need to develop protections for the forcibly displaced – those people who were forced to flee their homes, but did not seek refuge in a new country.
According to data compiled by Cardinal Veglio's office, in 2012 there were some 16 million officially recognized refugees in the world and 28.8 million internally displaced persons. In addition, an estimated 21 million people have been trafficked, including 4.5 million for sexual exploitation and 14.2 million for what amounts to slave labor.
With the introduction of more restrictive measures both for immigration and for the recognition of refugee status, the number of people being smuggled or trafficked – for sex, forced labor or as child soldiers – has increased, the document said.
In addition to supporting Catholic groups, particularly women's religious orders that are rescuing victims and helping them recover, the document said, lay Catholics need to look at how their investing or buying habits may actually promote trafficking for low-cost labor, including in the fields of manufacturing, textiles and agriculture.
The document treats the whole field of migration as a field for Catholic missionary activity, which includes telling people about Christ, but also includes the ongoing conversion of its own members and the public defense of the rights of the weak.
"Every person is priceless, human beings are worth more than things, and the gauge of the values any institution holds is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person," the document said.
Refugees and forcibly displaced people not only have needs, but they have gifts, the document said. In refugee camps, detention facilities and parishes where they resettle, Catholic representatives should be aware that some of them may have been catechists at home and should continue to be involved in ministering to members of their community.
Those who have endured great suffering and yet still believe in God "can be effective agents of witness and evangelization not only among their peers, but also for the local population," it said.