First of all I would like to convey cordial greetings and regards to all of you from the Alma Civitas of Athens and from the Church of Greece as well as blessings from our Primate, His Beatitude, Archbishop Hieronymos II of Athens and All Greece.
It is indeed a great honour and joy and privilege to be invited to address this conference on the most crucial issue of refugees and migrants. Hence I would like to thank the Community of Sant’ Egidio for organizing this timely gathering and for bringing together such a distinguished group of participants.
May I also greet with fraternal affection and esteem the Archdiocese of Bologna and His Excellency Mons. Matteo Zuppi, Archbishop of Bologna, successor of Saint Petronius. I am very delighted to be in this stupendous city, among the most beautiful and singular in all of Italy. I certainly knew Bologna’s reputation as “la dotta” (the Learned), because it is home to the oldest university in the Western world.
Migration is certainly not a recent social phenomenon; on the contrary, it has been part of the human history since its very beginning. Human populations migrated from one place to another, at times in a massive way, from the East to the West and vice-versa. However, in the last twenty-five years we can observe an ever-increasing flow of migrants and refugees from poor and politically problematic countries towards the developed and rich countries, a phenomenon that occasionally may provoke social and economic unrest and political instability.
Migration is certainly a universal issue with multiple dimensions, difficult and complex, at the epicenter of social attention and scientific research. Indeed, due to the prevailing international conjuncture, the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis has become one of the greatest dramas of our times. Basically, the whole issue of migration has been considered by some European States as a matter of internal or external security and has been confronted with measures of suppression and limitation. However, this “recipe” may be doomed to fail altogether.
In conjunction with the acute economic and social crisis, especially in the southern flank of the European Union, the arriving refugees and migrants have now become an important part of the overall “social issue in Europe.”
In this very problematic state of affairs concerning the very essence of our society, the Church of Christ cannot and should not remain passive and inactive. By her vocation, the Church cannot remain indifferent to all the social issues of our times. On the contrary, being conscious of her mission at the service of human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, the Church is bound to promote human dignity and respect of fundamental rights and freedoms.
Thus, the Church, being “the Body of the Incarnate Logos of God” felt and grasped the needs of society and took an active part in social issues, developing a precious charity work, as an extension of Her primary spiritual mission of bringing salvation to mankind.
The Church is to stand for righteousness and to be faithful to the promise of the Lord Who said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
The Bible contains the Word of God, which is always timely and effective both as “judgement” as well as “salvation.” As “judgement” the Gospel leads towards a spirit of self-critic, retrospection, discernment and metanoia, while as “salvation” it leads to the joyful message of salvation which derives from the Cross and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, His Victory over death and corruption.
In this spirit, the whole issue of migration and refugeeness could not be absent from the historical resolutions of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church which was convened on Crete at the invitation and under the presidency of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in his capacity as the Primus of the Orthodox Church. Thus, in paragraph 19 of its Encyclical Letter, the Holy and Great Council crystallizes in theologically sound terms the common approach which the local Orthodox Churches and our faithful should adopt concerning these issues: (I quote)
“The contemporary and ever intensifying refugee and migrant crisis, due to political, economic and environmental causes, is at the center of the world’s attention. The Orthodox Church has always treated and continues to treat those who are persecuted, in danger and in need on the basis of the Lord’s words: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, and was a stranger and you took me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to me”, and “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you did for me” (Matt 25.40). Throughout its history, the Church was always on the side of the “weary and heavy laden” (cf. Matt 11.28). At no time was the Church’s philanthropic work limited merely to circumstantial good deeds toward the needy and suffering, but rather it sought to eradicate the causes which create social problems. The Church’s “work of service” (Eph 4.12) is recognized by everyone.
We appeal therefore first of all to those able to remove the causes for the creation of the refugee crisis to take the necessary positive decisions. We call on the civil authorities, the Orthodox faithful and the other citizens of the countries in which they have sought refuge and continue to seek refuge to accord them every possible assistance, even from out of their own insufficiency.”
It is obvious that for the Orthodox Church the “other”, whoever he or she may be, is neither enemy, nor a stranger nor an impersonal unit, but even in the most tragic moment of his existence the “other” remains a unique and unrepeatable image of God, a unique person, for whom Christ has given His Blood; the “other” remains our “brother”, the “topos” (the “locum”) where we can meet Christ Himself.
A great Father, Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople and Universal Teacher of the Church, characteristically says: “I do not despise anyone; even if he is only one, he is a human being, the living creature for which God cares. Even if he is a slave, I may not despise him; I am not interested in his class, but his virtue; not his condition of master or slave, but his soul… Why should I mention all these? – for whom the only-begotten Son of God became man”.
The emblematic proclamation of Apostle of the Nations Paul to the Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” reminds to all of us that the recognition of the equality of all persons finds true content only in Christ and that the unity of the human race is a reality thanks to the incarnation of the Logos.
Let us not forget that the “immigrant and refugee” par excellence is the Second Person of the Holy and Divine Trinity, the Son and Logos of God the Father; the Son Who began His earthly life as refugee, when the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. Christ, not only “migrates” agapetically towards the two other Persons of the One Holy Trinity, but He also “migrated” to the world, through His incarnation. The Logos did not visit mankind at some distance way, but He became the “topos”, the “locum”, of love for each of us; He became a true man to the point of accepting death. He came to break the logic of exclusivity of a chosen people, and lived wandering and homeless, accepting as His home all the places.
Consequently, the “other” becomes our salvation, while our entry to the Kingdom of God depends on the relationship we are able to create and sustain with him. Christ has taught us that the only valid criterion of being His disciple and a member of His Church is love. He has also taught us that as Christians we ought to feel the need to give love to our fellow human beings, especially to those in need or peril, to the refugees and to the migrants, to the “strangers”, whom we are called to “bring together” and take care of them: “for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” This is what our Lord did; He brought unity and bridged “the differing things”, overthrowing “the walls of enmity” and building “bridges of peace and love.”
However, speaking of unity, let us ask ourselves how feasible this unity among different peoples can be? What is our role, the role of our Church? What is our responsibility and what sort of unity are we seeking in the midst of all the tragedies around us? What sort of unity can exist between rich and poor? Between those who believe in God and those who do not? Between the locals and the foreigners? Between those who offer and accept and those who do not accept and do not wish to offer?
Truly this unity appears very hard to attain. There is no single way and there is no single right answer for all the above cases. There is no single key that could open all doors. There is only a source of inspiration, and this is Christ Himself, Whom we are called to imitate. The only way for the Church to open Herself to the outside world, to all persons and to all junctures is “agape,” caritas, mutual assistance, solidarity and cooperation; not imposition, prohibition, limitation and containment of human dignity.
In this spirit, the development and the stability of a genuine, sincere and cordial inter-Christian cooperation and of mutual understanding for handling in common contemporary critical issues, such as the ongoing refugee crisis, become without doubt urgent necessities, and a unique historical challenge for our generation and for our Churches.
The Christian Churches through their common mission of the Gospel can express the common values of the Christian faith on the one hand, and on the other hand can influence in dynamic terms the new development of European civilization; they can also confront decisively and not fatalistically all the contemporary challenges, by becoming helpers and by concentrating their attention to every human person regardless of linguistic, tribal, national, social, economic or religious discrimination.
Nevertheless we should not forget that there are manifold implications deriving from the reception of a high number of refugees and migrants in Europe. Demography and especially religious demography and potential demographic shift or the introduction of new cultural customs and/or religious traditions – sometimes radically different from ours – are some of the issues which must also be adressed as they concern our future and the future of our peoples.
We, Europeans, often tend to evaluate and assess other traditions on the basis of our own European value system, a fact that may lead to wrong and potentially harming implications for ourselves.
While we receive refugees and migrants, we should also work for bringing an end to the causes of migration and for creating the right conditions for the eventual return of refugees and migrants to their countries of origin, if conditions improve and their safety is not under threat.