Church urges faithful to welcome fleeing Zimbabweans

Catholic Information Service for Africa (Nairobi)

The head of the Catholic Church in Southern Africa has appealed to the faithful and all people of good will to receive Zimbabweans fleeing the worsening political and economic crisis in their motherland.

Archbishop Buti Tlhagale OMI, president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said in a pastoral letter on Thursday that Zimbabweans fleeing to South African should be accepted as refugees because the situation in their country had deteriorated terribly.

The letter cathe day the Zimbabwean ruling party ZANU-PF endorsed 83-year-old President Robert Mugabe, blamed for the nation’s crisis, to run again for president in elections due in March 2008.

“In fact, the living conditions of people in Zimbabwe have deteriorated to the point where continued survival has become a struggle for the majority of people,” Archbishop Tlhagale said.

“In Bulawayo, for example, there were only 50-60 burials in July and August 2006. In July 2007 there were 746 burials and in August 867! As your bishops and pastors, we consider the situation to constitute ‘events seriously disturbing public order’. (OAU Refugee Convention Article 1 paragraph 2: 1969)”

The crisis, the archbishop of Johannesburg said, had forced many Zimbabweans to flee their homeland to South Africa seeking the possibility of sustaining themselves and their families.

“They are more than migrant workers. These men, and increasingly, women and children, are refugees from the economic and political crisis in their own country. Their goal, for the most part, is to preserve their lives and those of their families through access to food, medicine and work to pay for these items- and not to become South African permanent residents.”

Archbishop Tlhagale lamented that despite the dire circumstances in Zimbabwe, the migrants were not welcomed on arrival in South Africa. “We complain of them taking jobs and food. We accuse them of being criminals. Our police harass them and demand bribes. We make them feel unwelcome in our churches and communities. We exploit them by paying wages well below minimum and then threaten to report them to police when they complain of our practices.”

Archbishop Tlhagale reminded Christians the teaching of Mathew 25, where Jesus urges his followers to welcome the stranger and to clothe the naked. “The Zimbabwean refugees are today’s strangers. They are naked, often having nothing but a few scraps of clothes.”

He pointed out that the appropriate response ought to be charity and concern. Each of us can make a small difference to their lives by welcoming them and assisting them to the extent our individual circumstances allow. Each of us can teach ourselves and those around us that we must look at the Zimbabweans first as brothers and sisters in great need rather than as some sort of threat.”

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