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The Bishop's Letter - Freedom from fear: Refugee Week 2010

Refugee Week - 20-26 June 2010
Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Catholic Outlook, June 2010

Jesus and His mates went boating on the lake. Exhausted from preaching and healing He fell into a deep sleep. There was a sudden storm and the boat took on a great deal of water. The disciples shook Jesus awake, saying “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!”

Jesus rebuked the wild wind and calmed the raging sea. But then He rebuked His wild and raging disciples for their fear, asking “Where is your faith?”

Here, as so often in the Gospels, fear – rather than unfaithfulness – is the opposite of faith. Though the storm had passed, the disciples were still frightened, now of their Master’s awesome power. “Who can He be,” they wondered, “that even the wind and water obey Him?

Refugee Week

‘Freedom from fear’ is the theme chosen by the Refugee Council of Australia for Refugee Week from 20-26 June. Fear is central to the refugee experience. The very definition of a refugee in international law is “any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his/her nationality” (UN Convention on the Status of Refugees 1951).

Freedom from fear is one of the highest aspirations of all people. Each morning the Church praises God for raising up Jesus Christ to save us from our foes, so that “free from fear” we might “serve him in holiness and justice all the days of our lives” (Benedictus).  The UN Declaration of Human Rights likewise celebrates and exhorts nations to ensure freedom from fear.

“Do not be afraid” is a constant refrain of the Gospel. Angels tell Mary at the Annunciation and shepherds at the Nativity to fear not. Time and again, before and after His Resurrection, Jesus told His disciples to be not afraid.

Only after receiving the gifts of Pentecost were the apostles free from paralysing anxiety or the instinct to flee.

Many Australians can empathise with the refugee experience, of those like the disciples in their boats, often as afraid of the uncertainties ahead of them as of the threats behind them.

Many have been through this experience themselves or know people who have: I have refugees in my own family. Even if we haven’t been asylum seekers ourselves, we’ve all experienced fear at times and the desire, even the need, to escape.

So even non-refugees can grasp something of what it means to be so frightened that you are willing to leave everything you know, and many you love, to find freedom from fear in some new place.

Fear in the recipients

Fear is found not only in the hearts of refugees but sometimes in the hearts of those to whom they flee. Sometimes there is good reason for anxiety: we want to be sure that asylum seekers are genuine and don’t have some other ‘agenda’; we want to do justice to those who have been queuing longest for refuge; we want to discourage the ruthless profiteers from people trafficking.

But if we are honest with ourselves, there may also be fear of outsiders here, and our leaders and media can reflect and magnify that in us.

Facing this issue squarely the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees declared in 2004 that “The precarious situation of so many foreigners, which should arouse everyone’s solidarity, instead brings about fear in many, who feel that immigrants are a burden, regard them with suspicion and even consider them a danger and a threat. This often provokes manifestations of intolerance, xenophobia and racism.” (Erga migrantes caritas Christi, 6)

The English name for this publication is The Love of Christ towards Migrants. As we celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart this month, we are reminded of the wide embrace Christ extends to all and the merciful heart He gives us to love with.

Faith and mercy free us from that fear which prevents us from opening our arms and hearts to newcomers, especially the most desperate.

Fear and facts

Sadly, there are those who whip up unnecessary anxiety in this area. The UN reports that in 2009 Australia received 6170 asylum applications amounting to 1.6% of applications received by 44 industrialised countries. Canada, a comparable country to Australia in many ways, received 33,250 applications.

Afghanistan was the single largest source country of people claiming asylum in industrialised countries but only 940 applications were made in Australia, 3.5% of the international total. Afghans are four times more likely to seek asylum in Norway than in Australia! So maybe we have less to fear than we think. Maybe those who do come will prove a blessing, like so many before them from other cultures.

Of course, there are difficult prudential and political questions in this arena. But ever since the Holy Family fled as refugees from Herod’s killing fields to the relative safety of Egypt, Christians have known the challenge of hospitality to the stranger.

Lord Jesus, rebuke the storms in our national lives, calm the waves of anxiety that threaten to engulf us, open our hearts to the stranger, so that free from fear we may serve You in holiness and justice all the days of our lives.

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