South African Bishops Denounce Xenophobia

Pastoral Letter for International Refugee Day

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DURBAN, South Africa, JUNE 11, 2001 ( The Catholic bishops of South Africa issued a pastoral letter for International Refugee Day 2001, June 20, to encourage their countrymen to give an evangelical welcome to those without a homeland.

The document, entitled «Our Responsibility Toward Refugees,» begins by reminding the faithful that since 1990, «refugees have been coming to seek refuge in South Africa from troubled spots in Africa and other parts of the world. The unending wars and stalling peace processes mean that we expect this trend to continue.»

There are many reasons — the document continues — «legal, humanitarian, Christian and economic why we should, as Church, support refugees.»

From the legal point of view, the letter explains, South Africa in 1996 committed itself to caring for refugees by signing three documents concerning their reception and protection: the 1951 Geneva Convention, the 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention.

«These documents bind us to support genuine refugees from wars, persecutions and human rights violations. As signatories, our minimum responsibility is to fulfill these international legal obligations.»

As regards the humanitarian question, the bishops affirm that in «the spirit of Ubuntu or Botho [solidarity proper to African tradition], we should give support to those who have been traumatized in their countries or on their journey down here. We are saddened by the treatment many refugees have received in South Africa.»

The bishops described some of the attacks against refugees.

«Some have had acid poured on their faces and bodies,» they said. «Others have been thrown out of moving trains, and they have been forced to move around carrying permits, just as black people had to do in the days of the Dom Pass.» The Dom Pass was an obligatory document carried by blacks when they left their ghettos at the time of apartheid.

«They have been refused the scope to use their skills to develop our country and its people,» the bishops continued. «The treatment they have received shows that we do not accept them as fellow human beings. This is in conflict with our tradition of Ubuntu or Botho, and the dignity of the human person, especially with regard to strangers.»

The letter reminds the faithful of the great commandment of the Lord Jesus, who, himself, was once a refugee. «As Christians, we are called to show our love for one another, including strangers,» the letter said. «The story of the Good Samaritan is a good example of how we should be treating refugees.»

Lastly, in the economic aspect, the bishops point out that a «lot of our xenophobia is caused by unfounded fears that refugees have come here to take away our jobs and educational opportunities. In fact, very few refugees are given employment legally, and most struggle to get an education. Those who succeed do so by creating their own jobs and often jobs for others, too. In this way, they contribute to the economy.»

Cardinal Wilfred Napier, archbishop of Durban and president of the bishops´ conference, appealed to Catholics «to communicate the message to their parish communities by reading out the letter during Mass on Sunday, June 17, by publishing it in parish newsletters, and by distributing copies of it to parishioners. The letter may also be used by groups within the parish for reflection and discussion.»

Among the suggestions made in the letter by the bishops for International Refugee Day, are: «Invite a refugee to speak in the parish or deanery; welcome a refugee into your home and encourage hospitality to refugees; listen to, or read, a refugee´s story as an opportunity to learn; discuss this letter in your parish, deanery or diocesan pastoral council; help refugees where they seek assistance; attack xenophobia where it is found; oppose all legislation that discriminates against refugees and increases xenophobia.»

The South African bishops encouraged the faithful to «offer voluntary service to organizations or agencies working for refugees,» and, most importantly, to «pray for the resolution of the root causes of refugee flows: war, starvation and oppression.»

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