Saturday, 20 June 2009

Shame or glory

The Church, refugees and racial discrimination

Despite all appearances to the contrary and notwithstanding notable commendable exceptions, the Catholic Church in Malta is largely failing in its obligation and duty to give absolute priority to a foremost phenomenon of our time: racial discrimination. The challenge this phenomenon presents is an outstanding defining moment in the Church’s mission to these islands. Failure to meet the challenge in a daring, Christian and humane manner will go down as yet another disgraceful fiasco in the history of Malta’s established religion.

Statu quæstionis

At this point in Maltese history, the phenomenon of racial discrimination is directly linked to the advent of African refugees to Malta. As is well known, these people are held in detention camps until they are granted official humanitarian or refugee status. In the popular mind they are conceived as “black” people, and mistakenly considered to be Muslims bent on ‘Islamising’ the islands. We have a perverse hotchpotch of xenophobia (fear of foreigners) negrophobia (fear of black people) and Islamophobia (fear of Muslims). The existence of non-black immigrants, as well as that of a good number of Christian Africans is implicitly denied. Racism is mixed up with religious intolerance.

It is obvious that our islands―government, institutions and people―are morally and politically failing to deal with the issue in just and humane terms. Evidence to this are the inhumanity of the closed detention camps and the degradation of the open ones, the establishment of far-right political organisations and their public and explicit deprecations, the aloofness of various journalists towards refugees in general and black people in particular, the ambiguity and narrow-mindedness of most politicians in relation to the refugee phenomenon, the arid legalistic attitude our government adopts, the general loathing of new refugee arrivals, the overt odium of the larger part of the local population towards black people, the inability to empathise with refugees and the perverse trivialisation of the reasons which compel them to leave their countries of origin, the denial of employment to black people and their abuse when employed, the prevention of black people from renting residences, the endorsement by both political parties of the recent fascist-style policies adopted by the rightist and corrupt Italian government and the Libyan regime, the exploitation of refugees stranded on the shores of Libya and elsewhere, and the double standards that are sometimes used by the law courts and the police in relation to black people.

Not just ‘another challenge’

These are serious offences that corrode the nation’s supposedly Christian soul. And yet, with notable exceptions (voices in the wilderness like Bishop Grech, JRS and PeaceLab), the Church in Malta lives with them. It palpably ignores that these attitudes are held and sometimes encouraged by people who call themselves Christians and Catholics, most of whom probably receive the sacraments without much as a sting of conscience. Indeed, some claim that they are acting in the way they do in order to defend the island’s Christian identity!

Some Catholics may consider these attitudes and practices as just ‘another challenge’ to the Christian message alongside other issues like premarital sex, cohabitation, lack of church attendance and the like. They are not. They go much deeper, running into the very essence of what it means to be a Christian. We are not dealing here with Catholics standing passively while others suffer and die ... just like some non-Nazi Germans did during the institutional persecution of the Jews. We have here an active audience which is generating and perpetuating a culture of hate and injustice.

The Church in Malta is failing to gauge the seriousness of this situation. While it carries on with its festas and processions, its million and one liturgical services, its social activities and parochial interests, it seems utterly impassive to the frightful refugee phenomenon.

I repeat, this is a phenomenon that can very well define what the Church in Malta really stands for. This is a phenomenon that may drag the Church out of its traditional mediocrity. It is a phenomenon that may bring out the difference between who in truth is with Christ and who is not; who shares his spirit and who does not. And yet this historic opportunity, this momentous circumstance, is on the whole being treated by the Church in Malta with an indifference that is shocking. Evidence to this is the fact that there was no institutional or collegial backing or endorsement of Bishop Grech’s daring criticism of the inhumane detention policy the country adopts and the unchristian attitude shown by many a Maltese Christian towards these unfortunate victims.

A strategic rally of resources

Of course, we do find here and there stalwart Catholics who are giving their honest share to ease this tragedy. Most of them have the explicit, and sometimes tacit, support of the Church establishment. Sometimes a word is dropped during some homily by priests and higher-clergymen to mildly exhort congregations to re-examine their Christian love in relation to refugees. This is not enough. It only proves the peripheral status assigned to the refugee phenomenon.

At this point in time, and faced with this grave, if apt, situation, the Church in Malta is called to rally all its resources around this one crucial phenomenon and its related issues. It is called to make this phenomenon a moment of grace that speaks out for what the Church signifies and champions. Every single pastoral act of the Church in Malta must be aligned to a comprehensive strategy and to a plan of action that brave this phenomenon and allow it to bring out the best that the Catholic Church embodies.

The Church is very capable of doing so. She has done it against Manuel Dimech in 1912, against Gerald Strickland in 1930, and against Dom Mintoff in 1961. For once, she can do it in favour of someone. The refugee phenomenon commands urgency similar to the danger the Church sensed during those three other situations; the major difference being that now it can rally its forces and resources not to resist change but to provoke it. It can denounce a state of injustice that affects thousands of helpless people but also, while rebuking un-Christian attitudes amongst its fold, uphold and advocate those values that give meaning and direction to its faithful, and reveal the beauty and commitment of its being.

Not too late to start

Already the Church is late in taking such action. While the situation consistently deteriorated along the past years, as popular far-right attitudes kept on garnering support and thrust, the Church in Malta persisted, and continues to persist, in maintaining its impassiveness and disengagement. This is shameful and scandalous to anyone who, religious or not, loves humanity.

However, it is not too late to start. By seriously and systematically taking up the issues surrounding the refugee phenomenon, and putting into action a well-thought strategic plan, the Church in Malta will issue a formidable message on which side of the wall it stands, and on what it takes to be a disciple of Christ. It will also give a concrete, authoritative and powerful testimony to the living Word of God.

Today a pastoral plan that merely exhorts every institutional branch of the Church to go about its usual religious business as if the refugee phenomenon does not exist or is relatively unimportant is ineffective and probably damaging to the Church itself. A functional and constructive plan should make the refugee phenomenon and all of its related issues the pivot around which any other pastoral enterprise should be built.

If, in this time and age, the Catholic Church in Malta wants to proclaim its true significance and worth, it needs to reveal in clear and unequivocal terms that it takes this most imperative phenomenon of our times with earnest. By seriously making the refugee phenomenon the centre of a structured pastoral plan the Church in Malta will have the opportunity to revamp its internal life and restore its image and reputation in the public sphere.

Silence or feeble action amount to complacency and complicity.

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