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 Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People


The Church and Undocumented Migrants and Refugees,

including those who are not Christians*


Archbishop Stephen Fumio HAMAO

President, Pontifical Council for Migrants and Itinerants

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

It is a pleasure for me to be here before you today, in your beautiful country, and discuss with you the plight of migrants, especially those who have no documents, and refugees, whatever creed they may profess. Before going into details, however, I believe it best to recall the fundamental context within which we live and act.

Each and every person who lives on our planet, earth, is a child of God, created according to His image and likeness, out of love. For each one of them, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, suffered and died on the cross to reunite all of them with the Father. This is his supreme desire, expressed on the night before He died: “Father, that they may all be one, as you and I are one…” This unity of mankind includes everyone, even those who do not know that unity is God’s design on humanity.

To continue his mission on earth, Christ instituted the Church, “sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race”.[1] The Church manifests this in building the communion of love, the “fruit and demonstration of that love which springs from the heart of the Eternal Father and is poured out upon us … to make us all ‘one heart and one soul’ (Acts 4:32)”.[2]

The “unity of the human race” and “all being one heart and one soul” clearly imply that God’s love encompasses everyone. No one is excluded. It is not limited to the visible Church that Jesus Christ founded. It knows no bounds and reaches every man and woman, be he or she rich or poor, young or old, pleasant or unpleasant, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or without any religious creed… Christ, in fact, died “to gather together the dispersed children of God (cf. Jn 11:52), to reinstate the marginalized and to bring close those who are distant, in order to integrate all into acommunion that is not based on ethnic, cultural or social membership, but on the common desire to accept God's word and to seek justice. ‘God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him’ (Acts 10:34-35)”. [3]

It is in this context that we live, work, pray and most of all love… towards universal communion, universal brotherhood, in Christ, who gave up his life for all men and women, whether they like it or not, whether they believe in it or not.

Undocumented migrants

Every person, therefore, is a son of God. As such each one deserves to be respected and loved. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights itself (adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948) recognizes the “inherent dignity and … the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”.[4] There is therefore no quarrel, in any instance whatsoever, regarding the dignity of every human person, exclusively because he or she is a human being. This dignity never disappears, whatever the external circumstances may be, even when a human person loses his mind, commits a crime or is on his death bed….

Persons in an illegal situation and asylum seekers maintain that dignity. They remain children of God and deserve our Christian love and protection. How is the Church to respect the law and at the same time carry out her mission towards these people who have no legal right to remain in a given national territory?

The first thing that any Church worker can do, without fear of violating any regulation, is to listen to people in an irregular condition or in search of asylum, in order to know exactly what their situation is, and also provide them with their basic needs.[5] This is in accordance with the Church’s preferential, although not exclusive, option for the poorest. In fact, Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to state, in his first Apostolic Letter in the new millennium, that we must learn to see Christ in the faces of those with whom he himself wishes to be identified: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Mt 25: 35-37).[6] The Church therefore reaches out to all those in need, without asking for documents or a baptismal certificate. Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[7], in full accord with the Gospel teachings, states: “Everyone has the right to life.” Thus, even asylum-seekers and migrants in an illegal situation have the right to be provided with the necessary means of subsistence. It is a right that surpasses any positive law.

Obviously, “this does not mean to contest or in any way deny the right of every civilized and ordered community to protect its own territory, to take proper measures to safeguard its legitimate national interests, to take measures against the circulation of fugitive criminals, subverters of public order and traffickers of arms and drugs.”[8] Christian solidarity simply sees the need to take care of human beings, especially young people, minors and children, who are incapable of defending themselves because they lack protection under the law and often do not know the language of the country in which they have been obliged to seek refuge due to natural catastrophes, wars, violence, persecution, even genocide in their own country or to economic conditions there that are such as to endanger their physical integrity or life itself. If left to themselves, without any aid or support, these people are an easy prey to unscrupulous exploiters, who have no qualms of conscience in leading them to immorality and criminality, and reducing them to modern-day “slaves”. [9]

On the other hand, if it is a right to leave one’s country, would it not also be a right to enter another country? This question needs to be tackled in conjunction with the notion of universal common good, which considers the good of the whole human family and goes beyond any nationalistic approach. Its basis lies in the universality and indivisibility of the fundamental human rights, a consequence of the dignity of the human person. A country’s ethical obligation to receive immigrants cannot be determined only by the mere defense of its own well-being. Emigrants have the right to live worthily with their family, to preserve and develop their cultural and religious patrimony, and to be treated under all circumstances in keeping with their human dignity.[10] Just as a person’s surplus is determined by his fellowman’s necessities, so also, a country’s surplus has to be measured by the real needs of another country’s citizens, especially when they knock at its doors as immigrants or refugees. Certainly, the level of needs of these two groups of “people on the move” may be very different, but in many cases, especially when immigrants are in an irregular situation, differences tend to be greatly reduced.

Of course, it is necessary to help asylum seekers and immigrants in an irregular situation find the appropriate, lawful solution to their case and acquire a legal status. In this regard, the amnesty that some States have offered, and in favour of which the Holy Father has spoken in the past, plays an important role. Some cases may need assistance so that they can turn to a third country for acceptance. Others would need support to be able to return safely to their home country. Whatever may be the best solution, Christian solidarity pushes us not to leave them alone in coping with the situation.  

Inter-religious dialogue in the world of migrants and refugees

Migration has certainly opened a new way for inter-religious dialogue. Christians migrate into countries where the majority are not Christians, and countries with a Christian tradition receive migrants who do not profess the Christian faith. In this context, it is inevitable for questions regarding relations between Christians and followers of other religions to come up.

In this case, too, we stand before the fundamental truth that all men and women, regardless of color, creed, nationality or social standing, are children of God, and brothers and sisters among themselves. Everything else is a consequence of this. This implies that I am to treat all persons according to their human dignity, whether or not they are Christians.

Yet we are products of our cultures and our traditions. We were born in societies where we may have inherited prejudices that have conditioned our relationships with those who profess a faith different from our own. In fact, in his Message for the 88th World Day of Migrants and Refugees, the Holy Father affirmed: “…It is indispensable to remove the barriers of diffidence, prejudice and fear that unfortunately still exist among those who belong to the different religions.” He also stated that among followers of the different religions, dialogue is the leading way to follow, but initiatives that attract the attention of the mass media are not enough. “What are needed,” the Pope specifies, “are everyday gestures, done with simplicity and constancy, that are capable of producing an authentic change in interpersonal relationships.” [11]

It is through dialogue, which gives central importance to the human person, that we can hope to ward off “the dread specter of those wars of religion which have so often bloodied human history and … have so often forced many people to abandon their own countries.” [12]

Dialogue is not easy, but all true Christians are called to continue along this road with patience and confidence. Of course, as the Holy Father pointed out in Novo Millennio Ineunte, it cannot be done with religious indifferentism.[13] For Christians to be able to dialogue authentically with others, it is indispensable that they also give a clear witness of their own faith.[14]

In many parts of the world, it is heartwarming to see migrants, refugees and displaced people turn for support to Catholic organizations and parishes, where they are welcomed whatever may be their cultural or religious affiliation. On their part, Christians cannot limit their service of charity to simply distributing humanitarian aid. They are called to share the most important treasure that they have, to give witness to the hope that is within them, by their life’s witness and through respectful proclamation. “Dialogue must not hide, but exalt, the gift of faith,” affirms Pope John Paul II[15]. A dialogue of welcome and mutual openness allows people to know each other better and discover that the various religious traditions often contain precious seeds of the Word (Semina Verbi). This could be a way to an enrichment of dialogue.

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth and Love, will guide us in this delicate process towards a new humanity. In fact, for it, the Creator has written a design of unity in diversity of cultures and traditions.

* Vº Faith Encounter in Social Action, (2002, July 2-7), Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia

[1] Lumen Gentium, n. 1.
[2] Novo Millennio Ineunte ( NMI), n. 42.
[3] Pope John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 1995 ( WDMR 95).
[4] Preamble.
[5] cf. WDMR 95.
[6] cf. NMI, n. 49
[7] art. 3.
[8] Agostino Casaroli (Card.), Pontifical Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 1984( WDMR 84).
[9] cf. Pope John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 1992 ( WDMR 92); Refugees, A Challenge to Solidarity, 1992, n.4; WDMR 84.
[10] cf. Angelo Sodano (Card.), Letter to the Ordinary Assembly of the Organization of American States, June, 2002.
[11] Pope John Paul II, Message for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2002 ( WDMR 02), n. 1.
[12] cf. WDMR 02, n.2.
[13] cf. NMI, n. 56.
[14] cf. WDMR 02, n.2.
[15] WDMR 02, n.4.