We are now in the Christian fasting period of Lent. It is a time of reflection, a time for examining our personal life and our life as a member of society. We are encouraged to recognise the boundaries that exist regarding what we may do, as well as those we should overcome. The words of the Old Testament prophets show us the way. We must not “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2.7). There is a line we must not cross. On the other hand, we must break down existing boundaries when it comes to letting “justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.24).
At present, our physical and mental boundaries are being tested by the spread of the new coronavirus and the developing refugee situation on the external borders of Europe. A common trait of both challenges is that they require us to take personal and shared responsibility, across all boundaries and irrespective of political convictions. They challenge us as people and members of the human race. Burdens should be shared and shouldered jointly. If we fail, we lose our humanity.
However, that is where the similarities end. A virus must be combated. This does not apply to people who are seeking safe refuge. People who are fleeing insupportable conditions can lose almost everything – but never their human rights.
What is currently happening on the border between Turkey and Greece, is putting our humanity to the test. Complex political, cultural, financial and democratic problems give rise to legitimate concerns and fears. Such fears must be taken seriously, but must not keep us captive and prevent us from shouldering our responsibility.
If we want to live up to what it means to be human, we must never accept the dehumanisation of people fleeing terrible conditions, nor their reduction to a threat. A dignified response, a functioning right to asylum and shared responsibility for refugees are what we need to provide as democratic countries and as people.
The right to seek asylum is a human right. EU Member States have undertaken not to send people back to conditions of oppression and persecution; this is both a legal commitment and a moral obligation.
Assuring order and prosperity in Europe at the cost of chaos on its external borders is incompatible with the ethical convictions on which the Europe we live in today was built. Claiming to protect Christian values or communities by shutting out those who seek safe refuge from violence and suffering is unacceptable, undermines Christian witness in the world and raises up national borders as idols.
The EU is the result of a peace project, and this is what the EU must continue to be. We will never succeed in keeping our own countries safe and secure if we fail to help solve the situations of conflict and oppression, climate crisis and poverty that force people to flee.
The refugee reception crisis of 2015 in Europe was the result of a long-standing refugee crisis in Syria and Afghanistan, and in many other places where war and persecution leave people’s lives in tatters. What is happening now is a political gamble with people’s lives. The worst thing about the situation in Idlib, Syria, in Turkey and in Greece is that it exists – not that more people are seeking to cross European borders.
We know that the borders cannot simply be opened, and we are not advocating either such a solution or any kind of unchecked immigration. This makes it even more important that our countries accept their legal, financial and political responsibility. We are jointly responsible for ensuring that life can be lived in those countries currently beset by war and poverty.
The principal danger to Europe does not stem from the thousands of people seeking refuge at the borders to our continent. Rather, it comes from a breakdown in belief in the future, from a loss of universal values and human dignity, and from short-sighted politics on all sides. The danger is that our senses become dulled to the extent that we lose our common humanity.
There are some green shoots of hope, however. Experience from our Nordic countries demonstrates that basic humanity and solidarity with refugees is alive and well. This is clearly evidenced in an opinion poll recently published by the Red Cross, Save the Children and the Church of Sweden. This popular opinion is, in the words of the famous Swedish author Kerstin Ekman, “a goldmine of humanism”. It needs to be heard and have an impact.
Taking a stand against the weak and helpless being trampled down and the afflicted being pushed out of the way, and contributing to justice rolling down like waters – that is what it means to be human. We are, after all, one human race under God, living together under the same sky.
Antje Jackelén, Archbishop, Church of Sweden
Tapio Luoma, Archbishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland
Bernd Eidsvig, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Oslo
Atle Sommerfeldt, Acting Praeses, Church of Norway
Cardinal Anders Arborelius, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Stockholm
Czeslaw Kozon, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Copenhagen
Peter Skov-Jakobsen, Biskop, Copenhagen
Dávid Tencer, Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Reykjavik
Marco Pasinato, Apostolic administrator, Catholic Diocese of Helsinki
Agnes Sigurdardóttir, Bishop, Icelandic Church, Reykjavik