Weeks before a historic first trip to the United States, Pope Francis called on the religious communities of Europe to address the region's spiraling migrant crisis, sheltering at least one war-weary family in every parish, convent and monastery on the continent.
More than 365,000 migrants have already crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year, according to the United Nations. About 2,800 of those are dead or missing and millions more are languishing in camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Libya, and Hungary. Most have fled ISIS in Iraq, civil war in Syria and smoldering conflicts in Afghanistan.
But while European governments have begun to open their borders, the United States has accepted a scant 1,500 Syrian refugees since 2011. By contrast, the influx into Germany has reached record levels in recent days, with about 8,000 refugees pouring into Munich on Saturday, and another 8,000 expected to arrive on Sunday.
By midday Sunday, Austria had also reported a surge: 11,000 new migrants, according to the country's Interior Ministry. The Italian coast guard, meanwhile, said it had coordinated the rescue of 329 migrants who ran into trouble while trying to cross the sea in rubber boats.
It's not enough to say "Have courage, hang in there," Francis told a crowd of thousands in St. Peter’s Square. He implored every religious community in Europe to make a "concrete" difference in the crisis, and pledged that the Vatican itself would take in two families “fleeing death by war and hunger.”
"The Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope,” he said, as the crowd cheered. Francis, who is himself descended from Italian migrants to Argentina, cited Mother Teresa and added: “May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family, starting with my diocese of Rome.”
Francis did not mention the United States, but a few days earlier aid groups and at least 14 senators renewed their earlier calls on the Obama administration to do more. The groups want the U.S. to take in at least 65,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2016. By comparison, Europe is expected to take in at least 150,000 under a plan proposed by the president of the European Commission. And Germany alone may take in as many as 800,000, according to chancellor Angela Merkel.
The international outcry has intensified in recent days, prompted by a trifecta of shocking stories. First, the badly decomposed bodies of more than 70 migrants were found in a truck in Austria. Then, the body of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shore of a resort town in Turkey. And almost daily these days the internet is flooded with images of desperate people trying wedged into engines, wheel wheels, and other tiny compartments in an effort to sneak into Europe.
Amid such suffering the pontiff’s call could make a serious difference in the crisis. There are more than 25,000 parishes in Italy alone, and more than 12,000 in Germany. The Vatican has two parish churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica. The pontiff offered no details on which two refugee families his small city state would welcome inside the ancient walls. But a Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Ciro Benedettini, told Reuters that pope's “chief alms-giver” was now deciding which families will be hosted.
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The United States, however, would need to overcome several political and systemic hurdles before accepting more refugees itself. The country’s asylum process requires extensive background checks, for example, and as a leading Republican presidential candidate calls for deporting millions of immigrants already here, there seems to be little popular will in Congress to speed up the process. In fact, the same group of senators that first called on the U.S. to open a wider door to migrants has already been dubbed the “jihad caucus” by opponents—a reference to the supposed risk in letting in outsiders from Arab countries.
The pontiff could alter this political picture during his trip to America later this month. He has made mercy a theme of his papacy, offering haircuts and showers to the poor of Rome, and making a point of visiting the periphery of society. But while he is wildly popular with American Catholics—in a poll conducted last month by the Public Religion Research Institute, two-thirds had a favorable view of him—many of the Pope’s supporters disagree with him on climate change, abortion and, the issue of moment, welcoming immigrants.