UN praises Austrian, German refugee response; churches want all of Europe's support

(© Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)The Reichstag building in Berlin which houses the German Bundestag, the federal legislative chamber, on Aug. 26, 2015.

Seventy years after Nazi Germany's defeat ended World War II, the United Nations is praising the country, along with Austria for responding to Europe's escalating migration crisis by receiving refugees.

The United Nation Refugee Agency has welcomed the decision of Austria and Germany to receive thousands of refugees and migrants who crossed the border from Hungary at the weekend.

"This is political leadership based on humanitarian values," the UNHCR said in a statement Sept. 5, while also praising civil society and faith-based organizations for changing the debate on refugees.

A number of European leaders have described the flight of people in the Europe Middle East region as the biggest humanitarian crisis there since World War II.

Most of the refugees arriving in Germany are fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, say German officials.

But other parts of Europe, got a dressing down from the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.

In Calais near the Channel Tunnel to Britain thousands of migrants from Africa are also encamped and prepared to risk all for a better life, facing resistance to having them.

It is "absolutely and critically necessary that all European States take their proper responsibility in terms of reception and support for people seeking refuge, safety and a better future for themselves and their families.

"This cannot be left only to the States where they enter first," the World Council of Churches general secretary, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, said in a statement issued on Sept. 4 in Colombia.

"Today, Europe – both West and East – is being tested on the strength of its commitment to human dignity and rights. This is a test of our human values and Christian legacy," he said.

Pope Francis responded by asking every Catholic church in Europe to set an example of Christian mercy by taking in a family of refugees, The Wall Street Journal reported.


"May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family," the Pope told a crowd in St. Peter's Square after the traditional noon Angelus prayer after Sunday mass Sept. 6.

There are some 120,000 Catholic parishes in Europe, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University says.

Francis said that the Vatican itself would receive two families in the next few days.

The Vatican is a tiny city-State with fewer than 600 citizens, most of them members of the clergy.

If it took in two families of three, that would be a similar commitment as a proportion of the population to Germany's target to accept 800,000 this year, The Independent newspaper reported.

"Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees who are fleeing death by war and by hunger, and who are on a path toward a hope for life, the Gospel calls us to be neighbors to the smallest and most abandoned, to give them concrete hope," Francis said.

The UNHCR also praised civil society groups and individuals of Austria and Germany mobilizing in large numbers to welcome and provide aid to people as they enter.

All over Europe, UNHCR said it is witnessing a remarkable outpouring of public response.

This includes faith-based organizations, NGOs and individuals, in many cases driving governments to change policies and rhetoric, the refugee agency, it said.

The UN Refugee Agency noted, however, that the current concentration of refugees and migrants in a small number of countries willing to receive them is not a sustainable solution.

Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, the Catholic Archbishop of Glasgow, criticized the "mean-spirited and unhelpful" approach Britain has adopted so far.

He urged, "It is time to open our hearts and borders," The Scotsman newspaper reported.

The archbishop stated: "In my view the refugees crisis is a test, not of political shrewdness, but of common humanity. What is happening in the Mediterranean, Calais and other access points is an affront to human dignity.

"The UK should be generous in providing a safe haven for refugees and asylum seekers," said the Catholic leader.

"Britain's policy in the Mediterranean of rescue and deposit elsewhere is mean-spirited and unhelpful to the nations who are bearing the brunt of the migrations - especially Italy and Greece."

(Photo: © UNHCR / A.Kitidi)A UNHCR staff member distributes blankets to people waiting to cross the Greek-FYR Macedonian border in September 2015. UNHCR staff have been at the border since the start of the current crisis, monitoring the situation and helping the vulnerable.

The head of the UN refugee agency António Guterres, had on Sept. 4 emphasized the European Union faces a "defining moment."     

He laid out some key guidelines which should underpin all efforts to resolve the current refugee and migration crisis facing Europe.

Guterres said the biggest influx of refugees into Europe for decades requires a "massive common effort" and a break with the current fragmented approach which has led Europe overall to fail to find an effective common response.

"Europe cannot go on responding to this crisis with a piecemeal or incremental approach.

"No country can do it alone, and no country can refuse to do its part," he said in a statement issued ahead of a key round of EU meetings on the crisis," noted the UN Refugee Agency leader.


His message was echoed by Lutheran World Federation general secretary, Rev. Martin Junge who told LWF churches in a letter the crisis is a pivotal moment in Europe in which churches can demonstrate solidarity and human dignity.

Guterres said, "Exceptional circumstances require an exceptional response. Business as usual will not solve the problem.

(Photo: © Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)Heilig-Kreuz-Kirche (Holy Cross Church) an iconic Gothic style Protestant church from 1888 in Berlin's Kreuzberg district where many immigrants live.

"More than 300,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far this year. Over 2,600 didn't survive the dangerous crossing."

In Germany, a website has run for months which aims to match offers of accommodation in private homes - ideally shared rental apartments - across the country with individual refugees in need of a place to stay.                       

The website, Refugees Welcome (Fluechtlinge Wilkommen) has placed dozens of refugees who otherwise might be placed in overcrowded migrant centers or struggle to put a roof over their heads at all, CNN reports.

Despite Germany's generosity, there are signs of the mounting pressures, The Washington Post reports.

Cracks opened in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling coalition as allies questioned her decision to make Germany the most accepting country in Europe.

Leaders must stop the "mass influx of refugees coming only to Germany," said Andreas Scheuer, the general secretary of Merkel's southern German sister party, the center-right Christian Social Union, in an interview in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Guterres has praised some exemplary and "truly inspiring" examples of generosity and moral leadership on the part of some countries and many private citizens, but reiterated his appeal for a collective strategy including a renewed drive to settle conflicts,

The image of the young Syrian boy, whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after a failed attempt to reach Greece, stirred the hearts of millions worldwide and has thrown a fresh spotlight on the human tragedies now regularly occurring in the Mediterranean.

"It (the EU) now has no other choice but to mobilize full force around this crisis.

"The only way to solve this problem is for the Union and all member states to implement a common strategy, based on responsibility, solidarity and trust," he said.

Lurking prominently is the problem of resources for humanitarian agencies.

(© Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)The Golden Rooster restaurant on Oranienstraße in Berlin's Kreuzberg area Sept. 27, 2015 a part of Berlin that has many immigrants and a strong Moslem community.

The UN's humanitarian agencies are on the verge of bankruptcy.

They are unable to meet the basic needs of millions of people because of the size of the refugee crisis in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, senior figures within the U.N. have told The Guardian newspaper.

The deteriorating conditions in Lebanon and Jordan, particularly the lack of food and healthcare, have become intolerable for many of the 4 million people who have fled Syria, driving fresh waves of refugees north-west towards Europe and aggravating the current crisis.

The head of UK-based Christian Aid's Middle East section, Frances Guy, said: "Countries in the region are hosting an overwhelming number of refugees, and our partners in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are working to provide succour and support to those fleeing conflict and persecution.

He commeneded British Prime Minister David Cameron's change of heart regarding resettlement, but urged him to be ambitious, the Edinburgh think tank Ekklesia reported.

"The UN refugee agency recommends that the UK resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees and we regard this as a minimum. A truly generous response proportionate to the human need would be to accept many more.

""Resettlement, however, is only one part of the solution," said Guy.

Christian Aid called on all governments to work together for peace in Syria.

"That should be the priority. Without peace the ongoing displacement in and around Syria will have repercussions for decades to come," said Guy.

(Photo: © Peter Kenny / Ecumenical News)Berlin, you are so amazaing says this beer advertisement on Sept. 1, 2015 in the subway station at Checkpoint Charlie on Koch Street, Berlin Germany. It was a demarcation point between the American and Soviet sectors of Berlin when it was a divided city during the 20th century's Cold War.
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