The Christmas story of asylum seekers

By Fr Maurizio Pettena CS

Yesterday, I stood in front of the Nativity scene that is displayed in front of St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and considered it for a moment. The Christmas story, as always during December, is much on my mind and in my prayer this week. Even David Jones just down the road has a beautiful display in its windows of puppets re-enacting the Christmas story, complete with baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the three kings and the angels. A huge group of tourists had gathered to watch the mechanical puppets, taking photos and in some way, celebrating what Christmas is about.

A few hours later, I read with sadness the news about the latest boat of asylum seekers sinking around 90 Kilometres from the coast of Java, Indonesia. The terrified survivors apparently clung for hours to the wreckage of the boat, watching others dying in front of them. Estimates say that up to 200 people may have perished in this tragedy, and that the smugglers had simply taken the life vests and fled for safety, leaving the passengers behind.

There are so many sad links in this latest news to the story of Jesus that I hardly know where to begin, and the reporting of this tragedy raises many questions.

When Jesus, Mary and Joseph left Bethlehem, they were on the run. Scripture tells us that they were warned in a dream not to return via the path they had come to their hometown of Nazareth.

Last year at this time, on December 16 to be exact, I worked with the late Bishop Joe Grech who was the then Bishops’ spokesperson for Migrants and Refugees, on what would be his last media statement on this issue. He died just two weeks later of a rare blood disorder, and left behind years of advocacy on behalf of migrants and refugees in this country, and a pastoral legacy of faith put into action.

Our last media release together was about the tragic story of around 50 asylum seekers who had drowned off the coast of Christmas Island, just metres away from safety after an arduous journey, and we quickly responded with a call to the government, and people of Australia to consider carefully their response this problem. His words, in part, read:

“Our hearts and prayers go out to these people and their families who remain. To make the arduous journey by boat and to lose their lives just short of safety is tragic. This just puts into perspective the incredible risks taken by people to escape their homelands. They make this journey with children, so they are obviously escaping very dire circumstances. They are not coming for a holiday”. (Media Release, 16/12/10).

For Christians, these events are incredibly important. Jesus for us is the Son of God, present yesterday, today and tomorrow. We firmly believe that the face of God is present to us in one another. Our actions and response to this situation has much to say about how we respond to God’s presence.

Something that is a little less known to many Christians and others is that Jesus, in his time, was a political refugee. He and his family sought asylum, fleeing religious and political persecution. The homeland of Jesus, Mary and Joseph was very near to that of the approximately 200 asylum seekers who fled their nation and perished to their deaths yesterday. This trouble spot of the Middle East is where the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

A number of Christian commentators and leaders have come out decrying this latest tragedy, and it has sparked calls for changes in policy. Various solutions are being proposed and all should be examined on their merits. The main thing I would say is that in our failure to find ways of sharing the numerous resources that we have in Australia points out the failure of our own political and social systems to fully embrace the extent of human suffering.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary on the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. More than 33 million refugees are knocking at the door of richer nations. Even before asking for a refuge they want us to listen to their plight.

At the Geneva meeting marking the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations Archbishop Silvano Tomasi encouraged reflection on the reality of asylum.

“The world’s 33 million plus refugees are the flashing red light of alarm pointing out deep social and political failures and an urgent call to remedy their suffering”, he said.

It is my hope, that Christians at this time to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Family in search for a place for Jesus to be born. Indeed, in our lives, even in a secular democracy like Australia, people through their lives are called to give birth to Jesus again and again, to allow his humanity and divinity to permeate our lives. We can do this in our acceptance of those who knock on our doors. This is the heart of the Christmas message.