The Cross: During his apostolic trip to Cyprus from December 2 to 4, the Pope will allow some fifty asylum seekers to reach Rome. What is the symbolic significance of such a gesture?
François Héran: First of all, the choice of Cyprus is very wise. When we look at the countries receiving the most asylum seekers registered on their soil in relation to their population, we see that Cyprus is the country of the European Union which faces the greatest migratory pressure. With other countries like Malta and Greece, it is on the front line. This is the great injustice of the Dublin Regulation.
Politically, there is also an important symbolic aspect. The Pope shows great consistency on the subject of migrants. He is faithful to his orientation, to the Christian values of hospitality and welcome which are inscribed in the Gospel: “I was a foreigner and you welcomed me. ” (Mt 25.35). Fifty asylum seekers, for the Vatican, this is not trivial: it is a message addressed to countries like France or Great Britain which do not take their share of exiles on their soil and leave the little ones countries facing their difficulties.
This gesture could offend certain political sensitivities, in particular in France where immigration will be a major subject of the next presidential election.
F H : There is indeed strong resistance to this, including in conservative or even fundamentalist Catholic circles. Their argument is that the Pope should be more political and less moral. However, I think we are wrong when we say that closing borders is a political act and that opening them is a matter of morality. There is no opposition between conviction and responsibility, the two are closely linked. From this point of view, Pope Francis gives Europe a moral lesson as much as he reminds it of his political duty.
The only criticism that we could possibly address to him is to participate in the policy of selection in the dribbles of asylum seekers. In Nigeria, for example, 200,000 people are waiting to be relocated. France has promised to welcome around 5,000 but chooses very carefully those it will receive. But the scope of the gesture is much more important than that.
In 2016, the Pope had already taken on board his plane 12 Syrian migrants who lived in Lesbos. Five years later, what impact has this gesture had on mentalities?
F H : Since 2014 and the start of the “migration crisis”, a large number of collectives have been created and have taken steps with the State on the issue. Some associations such as Cimade (Intermovement Committee for Evacuees) have doubled their numbers. When we ask these activists about their commitment, many of them, believers or not, refer to the gesture of Pope Francis and cite it as an example. While the Church’s family policy, for example, is not followed at all in society, the issue of migrants mobilizes many Catholics.
The action of the Church, in particular of Secours Catholique, is extraordinary: we can see it through what is happening in Calais. These remarkable people, without being die-hards, vigorously denounce the ill-treatment inflicted on refugees, and show that tearing up tents and evacuating camps does not stop the floods of asylum seekers and applicants for residence.