Muslims and Christians unite to call for bridges not walls

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SHAFAQNA – US President Donald Trump’s Executive Order to tighten restrictions on arrivals to the United States has been widely condemned, although polls suggest that US public opinion is sharply divided on the policy.

Amongst other restrictions, the Order issued on January 25, bans nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries from entering the US, it places a temporary ban on all refugee admissions and prioritizes refugee claims by religious minorities (Christians in mainly Muslim countries).

Faith-based organizations and human rights groups have called for a re-think of the Executive Order and have urged governments to address the structural causes of forced displacement and share the responsibility of providing for refugees.

Amongst them, the Jesuit Refugee Service – JRS – that has released a joint interfaith statement with the Italian Islamic Religious Community – COREIS- calling for bridges, not walls.

Linda Bordoni spoke to COREIS President, Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini and JRS Advocacy Officer, Amaya Valcarcel about their appeal.

Imam Yahya Sergio Yahe Pallavicini explained that a common sensitivity and Christian and Muslim shared values are at the roots of a continuing collaboration and cooperation between the Italian Islamic Religious Community and the Jesuit Refugee Service that goes back in time over the past 12 months or so.

“Unfortunately what is happening in the US, through the statements of President Trump, somehow pushed us to increase our brotherhood and react – or pro act – giving a joint brotherly interreligious Islamic-Christian response on the need to be much more consistent and honest on humanity, on refugees and migrants, and even on politics” he said.

Amaya Valcarcel pointed out that JRS is very glad to be able to speak out together with the Islamic Community in Italy and said that theirs is first of all a message of faith.

“Christians and Muslims inhabit religious traditions that are rooted in the experience of exile and in the hospitality of God and of God’s own, so hostile attitudes towards displaced persons have no place in our religious traditions and manifest a grave moral failure” she said.

In line with their faith, Valcarcel said, all people of goodwill should promote a more generous culture of hospitality.

She points out that within the Christian tradition, in the Old Testament there are no less than 36  explicit invitations to ‘love the stranger’.

“Also Jesus tells us to love the stranger and care for the stranger. He himself puts himself as a stranger” she said.

Valcarcel said that, also through the joint statement, JRS affirms its solidarity with all refugees regardless of their faith “and any attempt to reject refugees on the basis of their religion is contrary to our common values.”.

Yahya Pallavicini said the Qur’an also tells peoples and nations to know one another and pointed out that on a spiritual level “we all belong to God and to Him we will be going back.”

On the other hand, he pointed out, as regards our responsibilities on earth, we should share brotherhood and hospitality, and also work “to know each other and to love each other better as a way to love God. This is the main principle of the Commandments” for all believers.

“As a consequence of our theological and religious principles we feel there is a responsibility also at a cultural, social, and civic level to help politicians to be much more open-minded and consistent with their responsibilities regarding their own citizens and people at large” he said.

In the joint statement JRS and COREIS express alarm for the policy of giving priorities to refugees claiming religious persecution in countries where their religion is in minority.

As regards this issue Yahya Pallavicini pointed out that many Muslim majority countries are currently undergoing serious socio-political crises.

“This is among the reasons we have an increase of refugees coming from those countries where there is a lot of poverty, lack of education, lack of social and educational empowerment; but this cannot be the reason to deny to people coming from those countries the opportunity to live, to know, to learn how to be part of a wider humanity and of the relationship between East and West even within the United States” he said.

Highlighting the issue, Valcarcel said that half of the people served by JRS are in fact Muslims and stressed the fact that International Law is based on the principle of impartiality “which in religious words means universal love.”

She said that this Executive Order threatens to destabilize refugee protection globally by reducing the number of resettlement places and closing access to asylum claims, as wells as by discriminating on the basis of religion and ethnicity.

“Our criteria are to work under the principle of vulnerability and need” she said.

So what we are saying, she explained, is that we oppose this US ban and we ask governments to work on the architecture of protection.

“All that has been built after the 2nd World War is at risk and we are asking governments to really strengthen International Law in their own countries” she said.

Yahya Pallavicini went a step further saying the faith-based groups are calling on governments to be consistent with their responsibility in terms of ‘elected persons of a democratic system’.

He pointed out that they represent the people of their land but they also represent a vision of life and of the world that cannot be narrow-minded and unfair.

He said that richness lies in the pluralism of faiths and cultures, and if any county confuses nationalism with the discrimination of religious minorities it is a sign we are going backwards.

“This is unfortunately what we are seeing in the Middle East when one tries to create a pseudo-Caliphate” he said and pointed out that the reaction that causes the United States to neglect the needs of human beings coming from some countries in the Middle East “goes somehow in the very same narrow-minded direction, where culture is neglected and the values of religion as well.”

Valcarcel said JRS and COREIS are seeking to advance religious understanding in ways that will enable the great faith traditions to make stronger contributions to peace and justice.

“This directive, and other initiatives, by explicitly excluding migrants from a number of Muslim countries, threatens to undermine our efforts to enhance mutual understanding” she said.

She said it could also trigger negative consequences for peace and justice in the US and in the rest of the world.

The Imam highlighted how the cooperation between JRS and COREIS also offers a symbolic, concrete sign showing that Christians and Muslims are engaging together for common values in ordinary life, but also helping politicians to do their responsibility rather than dividing and creating confusion.

Pope Francis has repeatedly called for cooperation and dialogue between religions for the good of humanity and, Valcarcel pointed out, he has described migration as an occasion of grace and an opportunity to grow.

“He says that those who migrate are forced to change some of their most distinctive characteristics, but even those who welcome them – we are also forced to change” she said.

So, she concluded, he calls on us to experience these changes not as obstacles, but as genuine opportunities for growth: “We can grow spiritually together by hosting our brothers and sisters”.

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