Thank you for the kind introduction. I am very grateful for the opportunity to be here today at this event to discuss our obligations as a nation and global community to our brothers and sisters fleeing violence in the Middle East. I have traveled extensively in that part of the world and have met refugee families in desperate situations, many simply attempting to survive and hoping to provide a future for their children. They are like us, with dreams and aspirations and with a strong desire to live in peace and security.
Sadly, however, in our national and international discourse today these persons are lumped in with extremists who distort religious principles out of a lust for power and as a justification for the application of extreme violence against those who do not adhere to their warped philosophy. The vast majority of refugees from the Middle East do not adhere to such a philosophy and are themselves victims of it.
This is why we must reject calls to ban Muslims from entering our nation. If we submit to these calls, we not only play into the hands of the extremists, who will use it to recruit others to their cause, but we sacrifice the bedrock principle of religious liberty that has strengthened our democracy.
Pope Francis gives us example in this regard. Having traveled to the Greek island of Lesbos, he returned to the Vatican with three Muslim families, in order to provide them with a new home. This act was performed at a time when many European countries are considering closing their borders to refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and elsewhere.
It was also to show that the Catholic Church is willing to do its share. In fact, the Church operates the largest private social service network to migrants and refugees in the world. This includes our own Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the largest private refugee resettlement agency in the world.
Through his words and his actions, the Holy Father has decried the “globalization of indifference” to migrants and refugees that marks our age, calling on all nations to reject what he calls a “throwaway culture” which includes, sadly, our fellow human beings.
Nevertheless, we must acknowledge, understand, and confront the fear that causes us to repel those who only seek our help. The strong opposition to Syrian refugees coming to the United States is an expression of the fear that Americans feel in response to the horror of the Paris and Brussels attacks. The fear is real and so is the threat. In times such as these, however, we must be careful not to let our fear cloud our judgment as to the best way forward, and, in so doing, sacrifice our values as a nation.
As you know, Syrians and Iraqis, like other refugees, go through several interviews by U.S. officials and multiple security clearances over a two-year period – more scrutiny than any other arrival to the United States. And our law enforcement agencies are the best in the world and work day and night to protect us from attacks, and for this we owe them our thanks.
Moreover, these refugees know and have experienced terrorism: they have been victims of it. They have regularly experienced the violence of Paris and Brussels in their own homelands. In the end, they simply want what all Americans want: for them and their children to live in security, without fear.
Thus, we must continue, as a nation that the world follows, to welcome those fleeing persecution, regardless of their faith or national origin. In the current crisis, we can do better. To be fair, we are the largest donor to the refugees in the Middle East, and that is to our credit.
However, since 2011, when the Syrian conflict began, the United States has resettled close to 4,000 Syrians, a tiny fraction of the nearly 5 million Syrian refugees who have fled their country for safety. Accepting up to 10,000 more this year and 25,000 next year, as the Administration has proposed, would send a signal to the world that we are willing to share more of the burden of protecting the refugees, until the conflict in Syria can be ended. Without U.S. leadership in this area, other nations will not heed our pleas to keep their own borders open.
Some have suggested that the United States should only accept Syrians and Iraqis who are Christian. Of course, Christian minorities, including Chaldean Catholics, warrant our support and protection—ideally in the region so Christian communities there can survive, but also in other countries, if necessary.
But the large majority of Syrians and other refugees in the Middle East fleeing religious and other forms of persecution are, in fact, Muslim, targeted by extremists. Is it Christian to deny them protection because of their religious beliefs?
The late Cardinal James Hickey, archbishop of Washington, D.C., summed up this conviction from a Catholic perspective: “We serve others not because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic.”
This is why I am disappointed with the Governors – many of whom are Catholic – who have called for an end to the resettlement of certain refugees from the Middle East in their States. Some have stopped their government programs altogether. I plead with them to reconsider their stance in light of Catholic social teaching and the Gospel, in which Jesus Himself, in the Gospel of Matthew, was a child refugee.
To conclude, we should remember that our nation was founded by those escaping religious persecution. Since our inception, we have offered refuge to millions of persons from around the world. It is a record of which we should be proud. However, we have made mistakes, as well, having incarcerated Americans of Japanese descent and turned back Jews fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II.
History will judge our actions in this era as well. In his message to Congress, Pope Francis urged us to apply the Golden Rule – not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it speaks to how we would all want to be treated in these circumstances. “The yardstick by which we measure others is the yardstick by which time will measure us,” he said. If we close our doors to these refugees, we would be sacrificing our moral influence globally.
We need not make that choice. We are a great nation and have the capability to honor our heritage and live in safety and without fear. Surely, we must remember the origins of our nation and stay true to its principles: that we are a nation built by immigrants and refugees and that we honor and protect religious beliefs of all who come here.
Let this be a moment in our history in which we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, but uphold the values which have made us great.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.