Since last fall, few political issues have both dominated international newspaper headlines and triggered debate within the Catholic hierarchy as much as the so-called migrant crisis. Recently, many thousands of people, mostly Muslims, have been trying to flee oppressive political regimes, wars, and difficult economies in the Middle East and Africa for the West, especially Europe. While political leaders and many prominent churchmen, including the pope himself, have pushed hard for the West to accept large numbers of migrants regardless of their religion, there are many sound reasons to fear a massive influx of Muslims. However, that doesn’t mean that the West should reject migrants altogether. On the contrary, this is a perfect opportunity for us to open our arms to the many Christian refugees fleeing persecution, often at the hands of Muslims, and to ask serious questions about the compatibility of Islamic values and Western ones.
In recent months, the European Commission has tried to make European Union member states accept fixed quotas of migrants. Recently, it has flirted with the idea of making them pay fines of €250,000 per rejected potential migrant for refusing to comply with this policy. Naturally, this has aroused opposition, most visibly in East-Central Europe. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s conservative prime minister, wants to hold a referendum (whose results will be easy to predict: an astounding 84 percent of Hungarians oppose the EU-fixed migrant quotas) on this matter. Meanwhile, the Czech president Miloš Zeman has repeatedly claimed that Islam cannot be integrated with the West, while Slovakia’s government has stated that it prefers Christian migrants. In Poland, the conservative government of Beata Szydło has refused to take in migrants, citing security concerns.
Of course, opposition to taking in Muslim migrants hasn’t been limited to the former communist bloc. As has been widely reported, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, for example, wants to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.
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What has been the Church’s stance on this political hot potato? The Holy Father, for one, appears to see eye-to-eye with Brussels on this issue. In the fall, Pope Francis called upon each parish in the EU to take in a refugee family. Meanwhile, last month he visited the Greek island of Lesbos, where many migrants trying to reach Europe can be found. He took 12 Muslim migrants with him to Rome, explaining that he didn’t differentiate based on religion (he did, however, clarify that he wanted to take two Christian families, although they didn’t have the required paperwork).
The Catholic Church’s leadership is strongly divided on this matter. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna and one of the most influential members of the College of Cardinals, has emerged as a strong defender of Francis’s views on the migrant crisis. In an interview with the Slovak newspaper Týždeń, he blasted East-Central Europe for hypocritically claiming to be more Christian than the secularized West yet taking an un-Christian attitude on the migrant issue. Earlier this year, he made a solidarity visit to Iraq to meet with refugees. However, not all church leaders agree with Schönborn, and many have taken contrary positions. The most unexpected criticism has come from Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo; the Syrian prelate has criticized the West for taking in migrants.
Should the West take in numbers of migrants regardless of their religion, or are skeptics right that we should be vigilant, to use the phrase of Cardinal Dominik Duka of Prague, a critic of such policies? First of all, we need to realize that not all those who are afraid of large-scale Muslim immigration to the West are bigots and xenophobes. Many East-Central Europeans, for example, are genuinely scared of the consequences of large numbers of Muslims settling in the West. They have seen the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, Charlie Hebdo, the mass sexual assaults perpetrated by Muslim migrants in Cologne, and, of course, September 11. They reasonably don’t want the same thing to happen in their countries.
The current situation should also demonstrate to the West that there is a difference between Islam and Christianity. Many secular leftists love beating up on Christians for sins their coreligionists committed centuries ago. For example, President Obama has famously said that we shouldn’t criticize Islam for ISIS, because Christians are responsible for the Crusades and the Inquisition. This comparison is laughable, not only because the first Crusade was in 1095 while Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Above all, there is no “Christian ISIS” (even Richard Dawkins, the world’s most famous atheist, has admitted that “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings”). We should note that Christians who do wicked things in the name of faith do so because of their own iniquity and folly (a consequence of original sin), not because they are following Christ’s teaching. Many atheists, such as Kurt Vonnegut, for example, have noted that they know of no better ethical system than the Christian one; they are just put off by its hypocritical followers. The Gospels preach love for all humanity, including for one’s enemies, and turning the other cheek. The Koran, however, allows for jihad, or holy war, against the kaffir, or unbeliever and permits polygamy. Meanwhile, there is also no separation of church (a strictly Western practice that secularists must grudgingly attribute to Christianity starting with Mark 12:17 and especially Pope Gregory VII) and state in Islam.
While Pope Francis has said that he sees no difference between Muslim and Christian refugees, there is a tremendous difference. Muslims in many parts of the Middle East and Africa have to deal with difficult economies, nasty dictatorships, and bloody civil wars. Christians in the same parts of the world face genocide. ISIS in the Arab world and Boko Haram in Africa want to create Islamic states free of Christians and have no qualms in using violence, nor do Hindu radicals who persecute Christians in India.
Statistics from Aid to the Church in Need and other organizations show that Christians make up the majority of people persecuted for their religion today. For this reason, the West should give persecuted Christian migrants preference. Doing so would be a great show of solidarity on behalf of Christians in the West. While much of the West, especially Western Europe, has abandoned its Christian roots, the presence of newcomers on fire with their faith could have the desirable effect of leading to religious revival. Just think of the potential wonderful consequences of emptying pews becoming filled with people whose faith is so strong that they didn’t renounce it in the face of death.
If the West should give preference to Christian migrants over Muslim ones and, as we saw, certain tenets of Islam are incompatible with Western civilization, should Muslims be banned from entering the West? One notable feature of the West that separates us from the bulk of the Islamic world is that we favor religious freedom. Since not all Muslims are terrorists, they too are eligible to enjoy Western liberties. Furthermore, Islam is a decentralized religion; there are no enforcers of doctrine that give official pronouncements as to what is sanctioned Islamic teaching. This means that there are plenty of Muslims who disregard fundamental Islamic teachings, including those that make Westerners uncomfortable. Since there are moderate Muslims who have no violent intentions against the West, migration policies should consider allowing some refugees in who can be vetted by security officials.
The West shouldn’t ban Islam altogether. However, we should expect Muslims to respect Western values, even if they conflict with the Koran. The Netherlands has produced an excellent solution to this problem. In 2004, filmmaker Theo van Gogh (a descendent of the great expressionist painter Vincent) was shot by a Muslim immigrant after he had made several films harshly critical of Islam. Deeply shocked, the Dutch decided to make prospective immigrants pass exams to show basic familiarity with the language and culture of their prospective new homeland, and to demonstrate respect for Dutch values. If Western societies adopt similar practices, there will be a much smaller chance that jihadist radicals will sow violence and hatred.
If nothing changes anytime soon, ancient Christian communities in many parts of the Middle East will be completely wiped off the earth within just a few decades. If that tragic scenario occurs, then the West’s lack of action will be at least partly to blame. In addition to actively fighting Islamic radicals, the West should give Middle Eastern Christians (as well as their brethren in many parts of Africa and Asia) a sanctuary. Lumping Christians faced with genocide along with Muslim migrants as generic “refugees” is inappropriate, because it distracts from the fact that the plight of Christian migrants is incomparably worse than that of Muslims. As far as Muslims go, many disturbing incidents over the past few years show that their influx has to be treated with caution, like the Dutch have been doing since 2004. And to do so isn’t hatemongering.
Photo caption: Pope Francis meets migrants on the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16, 2016. (Photo credit: AP)