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European Church leaders urge governments to provide shelter

03 September 2021


Afghan refugees in transit at the Avezzano Interport, an Italian national reception hub for those flown in from Kabul, on Monday

Afghan refugees in transit at the Avezzano Interport, an Italian national reception hub for those flown in from Kabul, on Monday

CHURCH leaders across Europe have urged their governments to give shelter to refugees from Afghanistan, as Western forces withdrew and ended air evacuations.

“It’s important to limit further human suffering which results from past misjudgements,” the chairman of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, said. “Ways must be found to bring people to safety now the evacuation flights have ended, while deportations should be not just suspended, but stopped.”

Bishop Strohm was speaking before Monday’s final departure of US military personnel from Afghanistan. President Biden defended the withdrawal, and European Union ministers met to discuss the continuing refugee exodus.

Bishop Bedford-Strohm said that secure residence permits, with opportunities for family reunification, should be offered to Afghans in Germany, despite confirmation by the Federal Interior Ministry this week that right-wing attacks on refugee centres were becoming more violent.

In a statement to the Church Times on Wednesday, the Bishop in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, backed calls for safe-route humanitarian corridors like those used for refugees from Syria. He said that he was “distressed by pictures of some EU countries building or reinforcing walls” in the year that marked the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Refugee Convention.

The president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, also urged generosity towards fleeing Afghans, and agreed that humanitarian corridors were preferable to new refugee camps.

“We already have camps for African migrants in Libya, where appalling conditions reign: placing Afghans in such places would condemn them to despair,” Cardinal Hollerich told Vatican Radio. “Yet all we seem to be discussing now is how to accept as few refugees as possible. This attitude shames Europe and the West.”

US and coalition forces said that they had airlifted 129,000 American, Afghan, and Western nationals from Kabul airport since mid-August, when Taliban fighters captured the capital. A further 15,000 people have been brought out by British planes under government relocation schemes.

Three million Afghans, however, are already internally displaced because of the Taliban advance, according to UN data. Neighbouring Pakistan and Iran are hosting 84 per cent of the 2.6 million refugees now outside the country.

The EU’s governing commission has called on member states to specify how many refugees they can accept by mid-September, and is to contribute €10,000 per person under a resettlement programme.

But concerns continue. Christian Aid has warned that more humanitarian relief will be needed in view of the large numbers involved; and the RC group Caritas has voiced fears for charitable organisations inside Afghanistan and called on neighbouring countries to reopen their borders.

In his statement, Dr Innes continued: “We are all shocked at the tragic scenes that have unfolded in recent weeks in Afghanistan, with thousands of people desperately fleeing for their lives. I very much hope empathy and support will extend to a practical desire across Europe to offer hospitality and welcome.

“It is the basis for international co-operation to ensure the rights of refugees are respected and protected. The biblical imperative to welcome the stranger applies today as much as ever.”

In a message in Rome on Sunday, the Pope urged Christians to show solidarity, especially with Afghan women and children, and said that he shared the suffering of those affected by suicide attacks at the airport on 26 August.

The acting general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Revd Dr Ioan Sauca, also appealed on Monday for “global, multinational dialogue and co-operation”, urging member denominations to “transform the world by meeting the concrete needs of others”.

Charities in Britain, including the ecumenical Barnabas Fund and the Roman Catholic development agency CAFOD, have launched emergency appeals for Afghanistan, where up to 300,000 people were affiliated with Western military operations from 2001.

“Key players should do all they can to support the people of Afghanistan imperilled at this time, and especially those who have made such huge sacrifices to promote freedom from oppression and violence, freedom of expression, education, justice and human rights, especially for women.”

A Protestant pastor at Frankfurt airport, Bettina Klünemann, told the German Evangelical Press Agency that incoming Afghans appeared “completely exhausted from their struggle for survival”. Many were nursing injuries and needed hospital treatment.

The Primate of Poland, the Archbishop of Gniezno, the Most Revd Woj­ciech Polak, appealed last weekend for an “attitude of hospitality” in his country, where a 300-mile border fence is being constructed to prevent the arrival of Afghans from adjacent Belarus.

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