How to address the Syrian refugee crisis in a humane way

Found lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, the three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, was another victim of the violence in Syria that had caused his family to flee their home in pursuit of a better life elsewhere. Photos of his drowned, crumpled body quickly went viral, and the scales from people’s eyes seemed ready to fall away as the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it helped produce suddenly became personal. As tragic and unnecessary as his death was, his case was not an isolated event. More than four million refugees have fled the region since 2010, with most taking shelter in surrounding countries. Many thousands have died in the process; countless others struggle with the daily ritual of just trying to survive.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia's public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

Some 2,000 refugees and economic migrants are entering Serbia daily en route to the European Union. Serbia’s public spaces, like this park in the border town of Kanjiza, have become temporary homes to those in transit.

As many as one in three people living in Lebanon today is a refugee from the Syrian crisis. Turkey hosts nearly two million, and Jordan 600,000 more. Syrians have begun to face increasing challenges to find safety and protection in neighboring countries, which, faced with overwhelming refugee numbers, insufficient international support, and security concerns, have taken measures this year to stem the flow of refugees – including restricting access or closer management of borders and introducing complex requirements for refugees to extend their stay.

As a consequence, tens of thousands of refugees have begun the difficult trek west, with the hope of finding a new home in countries throughout Europe. Despite initial efforts to provide a humanitarian response to these refugee populations, signs of strain are clearly beginning to set in as leaders of countries throughout the region have begun to tighten their borders and restrict further access.

Reflecting on this expanding and deepening problem, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, KY and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urged “all Catholics in the United States and others of good will to express openness and welcome to these refugees, who are escaping desperate situations in order to survive. Regardless of their religious affiliation or national origin, these refugees are all human persons—made in the image of God, bearing inherent dignity, and deserving our respect and care and protection by law from persecution.”

Elsewhere Pope Francis has highlighted the moral obligations of the international community toward migrants, emphasized the need to establish institutional structures that can more effectively respond to crises of this sort, and called on “every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary of Europe” to take in one refugee family.

Recognizing that inaction will only have dire consequences for the many vulnerable refugees who are seeking a place of safety, the Catholic bishops of the United States have made a number of recommendations related to this problem. These include

  • Ending the conflict in the region and establishing a workable peace is of paramount importance.
  • Building an inclusive and lasting peace to allow Syrian refugees—also including those who are ethnic and religious minorities– to return home, rebuild their communities, and share in the governance of their country.
  • Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees who have fled to neighboring refugee countries.
  • Providing development aid to refugee host countries near Syria so they are able to properly welcome and care for the refugees.
  • Authorizing the admission and resettlement of 200,000 refugees into the U.S. from refugee countries across the world, including 100,000 resettlement slots designated for the most vulnerable refugees fleeing the Syria conflict.

Please, take a moment to learn what steps you can take to help Syrian and other refugees in their moment of need.

Todd ScribnerTodd Scribner is the Education Outreach Coordinator for Migration & Refugee Services at the USCCB.

Take action now! Support for Syrian Refugees is Needed Now More Than Ever – Action alert from Catholics Confront Global Poverty, an initiative of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services.

Mass at the border – celebrating our migrant brothers and sisters departed



November 2nd is the day we Catholics celebrate our faithful departed. On a personal level, we remember those loved ones who walked with us on this life and have gone to the eternal home to continue their life journey. On the church level, we remember them as our brothers and sisters who share a common faith with us and have gone to continue their faith journey in heaven with all the angels and saints.

Here on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, within the dioceses of Las Cruces, El Paso, and Ciudad Juarez, in the month of November, we have a tradition to celebrate Mass right on the border line.

Smack against the border fence, we observe the feast of the faithful departed – Día de los Muertos, as it is known in Mexico and in other countries of Latin America – to pray in supplication and thanksgiving. We remember all our migrant brothers and sisters who have found death on their treacherous journey north, in search of a more dignified life for themselves and their families, often seeking to reunite with their fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and other relatives.

This tradition started a few decades ago, in the wake of the many border enforcement initiatives enacted to deter migrants from entering this country without inspection. Enforcement operations such as “Hold the Line,” “Gatekeeper,” and “Safeguard” have pushed thousands of people to try to enter through harsh regions and consequently increased the number of deaths along the border.

To honor their lives and call attention to these deaths taking place along with the increasing militarization of the border, these three border dioceses started this beautiful and moving celebration that is now nationally known as the Border Mass.

Several hundred people gather every year on both sides of the border, around a common altar, to celebrate the Eucharist, symbol of communion, in a place that seeks to divide peoples and families. We announce the Gospel of inclusion, remembering that we are all one family of God, called to walk with each other in love. We share the Body of Christ and exchange the sign of peace across the border through the fence, despite opposition from the border patrol officials and ground agents.

The bishops of the three dioceses take turns presiding and the clergy of all three dioceses come to accompany the faithful, as we remember those migrants who have passed on to the eternal life. We pray for them in thanksgiving, for the gifts with which they have enriched the lives of their loved ones and ours. We also pray for change in our hearts, from hardened to welcoming, change in our immigration laws, for immigration reform, and for more Catholic engagement in advocacy so we can enact these changes.

As part of this Mass, we bring symbols of faith and pilgrimage, of migration, suffering, accompaniment, unity and hope. We present an image of the Virgen of Guadalupe as mother and consoler, a backpack, water, sandals, our national flags, and a crucifix representing our common faith in our Lord and Savior, who strengthens and accompanies us all pilgrims, those who are coming, those who arrived, and those who have departed ahead of us.

This is a wonderful moment of prayer and solidarity on the border.

Virgen de Guadalupe, ruega por nosotros! Amen.

headshot of Marco Raposo

Marco Raposo is Diocesan Director of the Peace and Justice Ministry in the Diocese of El Paso.

Visit the  U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Justice for Immigrants Campaign website to learn more about the Church’s work to promote positive immigration reform.

The 2008 film “One Body, One Border” tells the story of the Border Mass. Learn more about the film.

Torture: A Persistent Moral Issue

Farris, VirginiaElectric shocks. Beatings and whippings. Water-boarding. Rape. Hanging from chains. All these are examples of torture. Unfortunately, these methods and others like them are still practiced today by many countries, most often in places of detention, hidden from public view.

Just what is torture? The United Nations Convention Against Torture defines it to mean any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person to obtain information or a confession, to punish, intimidate or coerce, and that action is done with the instigation or consent of a public official.

That last part – that torture is condoned by someone acting in an official capacity – is a critical factor for international accountability. This means that torture is being carried out by government, law enforcement, military or political personnel. This is why the actions in Abu Ghraib were considered particularly egregious by the world community.

While many Catholics abhor what went on in Abu Ghraib, many still believe that torture can be justified based on what some have called the “ticking time bomb” scenario. A poll taken last December found that among white Catholics, 68% thought torture was sometimes or often justified; only 12% said it was never justified. In contrast, among non-whites, 51% thought torture was sometimes or often justified, while 26% said it was never justified. Among those professing no religion, 41% thought torture was sometimes or often justified and 32% said it was never justified. Obviously, more work needs to be done in helping Catholics understand why torture is inconsistent with our commitment to protect the life and dignity of every human person.

Church teaching is very clear; torture is always wrong. The Catechism of the Church says that “torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity” (no. 2297) and thus is a grave sin that violates the Fifth Commandment.

Saint John Paul II called physical and mental torture “intrinsically evil.” The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church says that “the prohibition against torture [is] a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances” (no. 404).

Perhaps some Catholics don’t realize that torture not only degrades the human dignity of the victim; it also compromises the dignity of the perpetrator, estranging the torturer from God. Torture also undermines a society’s collective integrity and moral fabric. It harms us all. Certainly, after the revelations about Abu Ghraib, the credibility of the United States as a defender of human rights was compromised.

Beyond the moral arguments, many professional interrogators say intelligence gained through torture is generally useless or misleading. Think about it. If someone is causing you excruciating pain, at a certain point, you may say just about anything to make them stop. Experts tell us that torture, or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (as torture is sometimes euphemistically known), is counter-productive, fuels anti-American sentiment, and encourages more people to embrace the very extremism and terrorism that the U.S. wants to stop.

June is Torture Awareness Month because on June 26, 1987 the United Nations Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) went into force, outlawing torture. The U.S. is a signatory to the CAT.

Have your parish or community group commemorate Torture Awareness Month by taking advantage of available resources on the Church’s teaching on torture. Visit this page for links to study guides, videos and letters related to USCCB efforts against torture.

As Catholics, we join in efforts to ensure that the United States says “Never Again” to torture.

Virginia Farris serves as International Policy Advisor in the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development.