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Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People

Presentation of the Pontifical Message
for the World Day of 
Migrants and Refugees 2002

Archbishop Agostino MARCHETTO

Secretary of the Pontifical Council

  Whoever has seen the well-known film “Mahatma Gandhi” will surely remember the scene of young Gandhi, a well-to-do Indian lawyer, thrown out of the first class compartment of a train in South Africa because he refused to move to one of a lower class, reserved for “colored” people. It was an emblematic representation of racism, institutionalized at his time in the system of apartheid. Unfortunately, today, there are still many forms of racism that go on existing despite international and national legislation opposed to it. Among the people most affected by this extremely sad reality are migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and other people who live, often not by free choice, far from their native land.

Racism, xenophobia, intolerance and exaggerated nationalism, therefore, are still present in our world. It is enough to read the papers to realize this. It is in fact not easy to find countries that are completely exempt from attacks, even brutal ones, against migrants and refugees, from expulsions based on ethnic origin, or from anti-foreigner propaganda and even killing of non-nationals.

Intolerance may also take forms that are non violent but not less hurting or less reprovable as, for example, the social exclusion of foreigners or non-nationals, discrimination against them in the world of work, housing and/or health care and other aspects of interaction in civil society. Thus the skills and education of immigrants do not always guarantee employment in jobs commensurate with their qualifications, so that many of them engage in demanding, dangerous and difficult occupations that nationals probably refuse to do. They are often relegated to poorer neighborhoods not only because of high housing costs elsewhere, but also because they are often socially marginalized.

Among the many causes of the increase of racism and xenophobia against migrants and refugees, the September 11 events are only the latest. Others, that are less related to it, have been there for a long time as, for instance, the common belief associating migrants, refugees and displaced persons with criminality and the use of migrants and refugees as scapegoats for the serious issue of national unemployment. In this regard, I wish to underline the important role and the great responsibility of the mass media. As a matter of fact, depending on how reports are made, perhaps without intending to, the same events can encourage the growth of tolerance and mutual acceptance or bring about or foment racist and xenophobic incidents.

It is in this context that, in his Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees (no. 4) that we are presenting today, the Holy Father calls on Christians to “learn to discern in people of other cultures the handiwork of God”, affirming that “only genuine evangelical love will be strong enough to help communities pass from mere tolerance of others to real respect for their differences” and that “only Christ’s redeeming grace can make us victorious in the daily challenge of turning from egoism to altruism, from fear to openness, from rejection to solidarity.”

Here, too, lies the importance of ecumenical collaboration, between the Catholic Church and other Christian Churches and Ecclesial Communities, “to form societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed” (no. 5).

The Holy See has often urged the commitment to overcome all kinds of intolerance against foreigners. This attitude is also reflected, for example, in its participation in the not too distant World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September 2001. At a follow-up Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, following that Conference, the Head Delegate of the Holy See declared that “the struggle against racism is urgent” and “must be explicit and direct”. It has, in fact, happened too often in history that “uncritical societies have stood by inactive as new signs of racism raised their head. If we are not alert, hatred and racial intolerance can reappear in any society, no matter how advanced it may consider itself.”

Still on the same topic, in Durban itself, the Holy See appealed for “a clear reaffirmation of the fundamental rights of all migrants, regardless of their immigration status”, the Church being aware that “today the migrant, especially one who comes from a different cultural background, can easily become the object of racial discrimination, of intolerance, of exploitation and of violence.” Furthermore, in the specific case of undocumented migrants, they “may not even have minimum redress with the appropriate authorities.”  The Holy See also asked that “broad lines for an effective national and international application” of the aforementioned rights be indicated.

In the Message that we are presenting today, the Holy Father once again takes up the strong and clear affirmation that racism is a sin, a concept deliberately invented to create division in humanity. John Paul II in fact strongly affirms: “Even in the recent past we have witnessed tragic instances of forced movements of peoples for ethnic and nationalistic pretensions, which have added untold misery to the lives of targeted groups. At the root of these situations there are sinful intentions and actions that go contrary to the Gospel and constitute a call to Christians everywhere to overcome evil with good.”

The grave moral responsibility of those who “divide” humanity in this way lies not only in the untold suffering that is inflicted upon innocent people, but even more so in the fact that it goes against the design that God has established from the beginning for humanity. All men and women, created in the image of God, are destined to form one single family wherein all are children of one Father and brothers and sisters to each other. The unity of the human family, destroyed by Adam’s sin, was in fact restored by Christ, who recapitulated in Himself all nations, all languages and human generations, He who is the universal Brother.

Since all forms of intolerance dwell and begin in people’s hearts, to eradicate them it is the heart that needs purification and renewal. Allow me then to close with a prayer that the Holy Father recited during the Year of the Great Jubilee, the following: “Lord God, our Father, You created the human being, man and woman, to your image and likeness, and You wanted the diversity of peoples in the unity of the human family, but at times, the equality of your children has not been recognized, and Christians have been guilty of attitudes of emarginalizing and excluding attitudes by consenting to discriminations motivated by difference of race or ethnicity. Forgive us and grant us the grace to heal the wounds that are still present in your community….”  Let us then do everything we can so that such attitudes may never be repeated again!