BYLINE – The Pope talks to Europe

April 23, 2016

M J AKBAR  |  Real stories so often get lost in the news; and news itself becomes a passing banner in the long parade of information that sets out after breakfast on a march into the night. Who has time or attention span to measure significance?

On 16 April, something significant happened, which, largely if not completely, got lost in transition. It was an encounter between the Holy Father of Roman Catholics, Pope Francis, and anxious, even desperate refugees from ravaged Muslim countries like Syria, on the once-obscure and now famous Greek island of Lesbos.

After two centuries of independent existence on the fringe, Greece has again become the gateway to Europe—although Europeans want Greece to become a barricade rather than door. Once, Ottoman-Turkish armies made Greece their base for forward movement into the Balkans, from where they hovered over powerful European kingdoms. Today, refugees from war-torn Muslim lands have turned Lesbos, next to Turkey, their landing point on the way to harbours as distant as Germany, Scandinavia and Britain.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European courts were legitimately worried about the expanding Ottoman power across Eurasia and Mediterranean Africa. Western dramatists, masters of the mass media in their time, turned the Turk into a monster waiting to ravish the civilisation, wealth and beauty of Europe. The liberal genius, Shakespeare, was an exception when he created a more nuanced hero like Othello the Moor, whose valiant exploits won Desdemona’s heart, and whose explosive jealousy lost love and life. This time it is not fear of the scimitar that has risen across Europe, but that of a demographic invasion. The hordes have arrived, on decrepit boat rather than charging horse; but in this democratic age the civilian is as alarming as the soldier, because the civilian can become a citizen.

Europe’s governments were initially overwhelmed by the refugee onslaught. Trapped between humanitarian instinct and growing public angst, they seemed frozen. Some furious diplomacy with Turkey, and effective frontier policing, calmed nerves; but there is now a huge population of refugees left in no-man’s land, dreading the thought of return to homelands they abandoned.

At such a fraught moment Pope Francis, a son of immigrants himself, visited a refugee camp in Lesbos. He has described the situation as the greatest human catastrophe since the Second World War. The Pope chooses his words with care, and acts after much thought. According to a report by Christina Lamb in the Sunday Times, London, the Pope offered support, comfort and prayer, and then took a dozen Muslim refugees back to the Vatican. [The 12, who happen to be from Damascus and Deir Ezzor, a town now controlled by ISIS, were chosen by lottery.] You may dismiss this as symbolic, but it was a powerful gesture of love that will resonate in the hearts of ordinary people. There is a beautiful photograph illustrating Lamb’s story, showing a young boy reaching out to kiss a smiling Pontiff’s hand while his mother can barely restrain her tears. Yes, there are tales of misery that need to be told; but hope is also a narrative.

True, the Pope was reaching out to Muslims. He has done this before and he will do so again. His faith is inclusive; his concern for human suffering transcends the boundaries of faith. But he was also telling Europe that it could not remain indifferent, or become hostile to families like that of Nour Essa and her husband Hasan, both engineers, along with their 2-year-old son, who will now spend their lives in the Vatican rather than Damascus. Five, or even three, years ago they would never have imagined such a churn in their existence. They never wanted to leave Syria. They were driven out by that most destructive and desolate human experience, remorseless war. They are lucky. Thousands have lost their lives in search for a different life. It would be unfair, and wrong, to suggest that Europe has not understood. Many governments have done their best. History will remember Angela Merkel, even if she has to pay a price at the next elections. But the world cannot forget those floating in limbo.

The Pope, as the world’s most famous faith-leader, has told us something that we do not really want to hear: if human beings do not understand the meaning of humanity then they are no longer human.

It is fashionable—and often, given the evidence, reasonable—to be sceptical about our contemporary leaders. Religion is no insurance against scepticism. So when we see a man of God believe in God, we must admire his courage and applaud his vision.
 

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