Churches enthusiastic about welcoming refugees from Syria

NEWS  | John Sandeman

Widespread approval from churches has greeted the Federal Government’s announcement of a special 12,000 refugee intake from Syria.

“I prayed that Australia would open its hearts and its doors to people facing the greatest need for protection, as did so many others from churches and homes all across Australia”, says Sister Brigid Arthur, Acting Chair of the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce. “I’m so glad that people fleeing Syria and Iraq will be offered places that are additional to our existing quotas. The initial announcement would have been robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Baptists reflected on Australia’s history of welcoming refugees in times of crisis. “In the past our nation has responded to displacement crises by temporarily but very substantially increasing its refugee intake. Between 1949 and 1951 we welcomed 160,000 refugees from post-war Europe; between 1980 and 1982 we offered refuge to almost 60,000 people displaced by the Vietnam war; and in 1989 we provided 42,000 Chinese students with four year protection visas following the Tiananmen Square violence.

“It is time for our nation to once more take extraordinary measures to care for fellow human beings fleeing persecution. We therefore sincerely welcome the government’s decision to a one-off resettlement of 12,000 Syrian refugees,” Ms Carolyn Kelshaw, Executive Director of Baptist Care Australia and Mr Keith Jobberns, National Ministries Director of Australian Baptist Ministries say in a joint release.

“This is a generous response to suffering that demonstrates the compassion of the Australian people,” says Bishop Vincent Long, Chairman of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.

“These are the sort of vulnerable people we should focus on when responding to claims for refugee status,” he added.

Melbourne's St Pauls Cathedral's prophetic poster

Melbourne’s St Pauls Cathedral’s prophetic poster

Bishop Long was speaking at the launch of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ 2015-2016 Social Justice Statement entitled, ‘For Those Who’ve Come Across the Seas: Justice for refugees and asylum seekers’.

“Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s change of mind from last week is surprising but welcome, and shows how the plight of the Syrian refugees has touched Australians,” says Anglican Primate (national leader) and Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier.

“I also welcome the decision to focus on persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, because their position will remain desperate no matter which side has the advantage in Syria’s civil war.”

Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies calls for a “warm and generous response” to the Syrian refugee crisis “coupled with practical assistance, to ensure that those who come to find safety in Australia are afforded the best possible chance to make a new start and benefit as fully as possible from the peace, freedom and opportunity that Australia offers.”

The Rev Zac Veron, CEO of Anglican YouthWorks, has offered immediate short and medium term accommodation for up to 400 refugees.

“We are preparing to offer medium term accommodation facilities for up to 150 refugees and short term accommodation for up to another 250 refugees”, says Mr Veron.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton suggests that we should thank the federal government: “Today, Australia has shown real heart to the world’s most vulnerable, and genuine leadership in the world community. We have said the lives of these people are important to us.

“We should rightly celebrate today’s decision. Could I encourage you to send a short thank you email to the Prime Minister. We are often asking for things from our parliamentarians but we should also give encouragement when good decisions are made. Peter Dutton was also a key player in this move.”

“We welcome the Federal Government’s timely and appropriate response to the plight of the Syrian refugees,” said Stuart McMillan, President of the Uniting Church in Australia.

“The overwhelming scale of the human tragedy has demanded this level of response. The persecution of religious minorities, including Christians, has been most grave. It is right for Australia to welcome refugees regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

“I sincerely hope we are seeing the dawn of a more compassionate, bipartisan humanitarian approach to people seeking asylum in Australia.”

None of the denominational responses to the refugee announcement seen by Eternity supported the idea that Christians should be prioritised because of their faith. (The Prime Minister has made it clear that “persecuted minorities” that Australia will seek to resettle will include Muslims at risk.) “It makes no sense to be overly discriminatory, Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies says. “Certainly there are some minority groups that have been specifically and systematically targeted by IS. These include, but are certainly not limited to Christians. There are also Yazidis, Druze and Mandeans targeted, along with Shia Muslims. IS show little fear or favour and even Sunni Muslims who do not share their view of the world are just as likely to bear the brunt of their displeasure.”

The announcement that Australian planes would take part in bombing raids on Syria which was made alongside the increased refugee intake was not as popular. While most church comments did not mention it, those that did, questioned it. Sister Brigid Arthur of the Australian Churches’ Refugee Taskforce comments: “I am very distressed though to learn that included in this wonderful announcement today, is the decision to participate in the bombing campaign in Syria – how will Mr Abbott ensure that innocent people won’t be killed in strikes undertaken by the Australian Defence Force?”

The Uniting Church‘s Stuart McMillan adds “Air strikes on a country in the middle of such a dire humanitarian crisis can only compound the suffering and misery of the Syrian people.

“We call on the Government to commit its energies instead to improving the delivery of humanitarian relief to the region through international aid organisations,” said Mr McMillan.

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