Saturday, June 30, 2007

Christians are called to welcome strangers

Giles Fraser, writing for the Church Times in the UK, reminds readers that Christians are called to welcome strangers, especially refugees. He criticized Lord Carey's attitude towards refugees as being out of step with Christianity; Carey is the conservative ex-Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was Sunday morning. I was thinking up my sermon in the bath, as usual. There wasn’t much to do: as it was the last day of National Refugee Week, there was a guest preacher, the chairwoman of the Wandsworth Refugee Network, which my parish supports.

My part in the sermon was just to introduce the preacher. Perhaps the right thing would be to remind the congregation how the whole idea of welcoming the stranger is woven deeply in the Judaeo-Christian ethic. The Bible is full of stories on the moral imperative of hospitality to the foreigner.

As I was mulling over this, the unmistakable drawl of Lord Carey emerged from the radio. He was asked what he wanted from Gordon Brown as Prime Minister. “I hope that he will impose stricter controls on those entering the United Kingdom,” he said.

The majority of those coming to seek refugee status originate from seven countries: Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, China, Afghanistan, Iran, and Eritrea. You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to guess why many of them are running away. Often they have been victims of torture. Many are children. Even when they get here, things can be dreadful. Many are locked up as if they were criminals. Worse can await them if they are released.

In the first three months of this year, 320 asylum-seekers were denied basic support, even though they are not allowed to get a job either. The Refugee Council has organised a number of sleep-outs to highlight the fact that many asylum-seekers have no means of support and end up sleeping rough. Now the Government is thinking of cutting back on funding for English lessons for refugees.

Tim Finch, the spokesman for the Refugee Council, could not understand Lord Carey’s remarks, given that, he said, “controls on immigration and asylum were so strong already.” He continued: “Lord Carey would seem to be out of step with the Church of England and other Christian and faith groups, which have been in the forefront of calls for more generosity to be shown to migrants and refugees.”

In church we sang “Once in Royal David’s City”, to remind ourselves that our Lord was himself a refugee. We read of the Jews as a wandering people, dependent on others for hospitality. I swapped the Gospel reading to Matthew 25: “in as much as you did this to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” Lord Carey out of step? Too right.

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