It’s so easy to be cynical about Christianity, particularly in its institutionalised form, that I was almost shocked when this week’s news made me cheer for the Church not just once, but twice.
First, there was the consistently awesome Pope Francis’s visit to Lampedusa, where he celebrated Mass with both locals and refugees, and cast a wreath into the sea to commemorate the many immigrants who died in their attempt to find safety and happiness in Europe (at least 18,567 people since 1988 according to the organisation Fortress Europe, which has documented the known victims here). The Pope used a chalice made from the wood of one of the refugees’ boats, which nearly moved me to tears because I’m soppy like that (and a sucker for symbolic references to Matthew 25).
And then on Tuesday came the news that a complaint filed last January by the Dutch Protestant Church (PKN) against the Dutch government will be taken up by the European Committee of Social Rights. Of course, the bigger news is that the Church filed a complaint against the state in the first place, but I had missed that one back in January so this was the first time I heard about it. According to the PKN, the way the state treats undocumented immigrants – essentially kicking them out onto the street as soon as it becomes clear that they won’t be given legal status – denies them their basic human rights of food, clothing and shelter, so the Dutch state should be obliged to provide these human rights to everyone within their borders regardless of legal status.
[W]here extreme vulnerability could not be proven, the right to assistance and shelter was denied, leaving the person without shelter, sanitation or food. This applied even in the case of a 61 year old man with reduced heart function, swollen liver, diabetes and swollen feet and lower legs, and in the case of two men with AIDS. (…) The situation of those living undocumented in the Netherlands, some year in, year out, can only be described as frightful. To survive on the streets, deprived of food, clothing and shelter, forsaken, is terrifying.
The situation of undocumented immigrants is currently a big issue in the Netherlands, mostly thanks to a large group of them who took up residence in a squatted church in Amsterdam and quickly (but briefly) became a kind of absurd national pastime. Within a few days they had received so many clothes that they had to donate most of them to charity shops. They were visited by celebrities and TV personalities, culminating in a Refugee Church Christmas Service featuring, among other things, a concert of Dutch rock star Anouk. The hype died down after a few weeks, of course (I guess Christmas was over and the problem hadn’t magically disappeared with the interference of the likes of Anouk and Arie Boomsma), but at least the issue had entered the public debate. The PKN complaint briefly mentions the episode, noting with a certain irony that
…whether destitute people obtain help depends upon whether public opinion is swayed. Only those who that protested, who had the courage and physical strength to camp outdoors, were offered shelter. Others, who were physically too weak to join the protests, were not.
Then, there was the suicide of Russian asylum seeker and activist Aleksandr Dolmatov, who had been detained in one of the infamous Dutch deportation centres. The circumstances in those detention and deportation centres have been subject to international criticism for years – see this report from 2008 from Amnesty International – but it took a long time before the general public took any notice of it. Following Dolmatov’s suicide, Secretary of State Fred Teeven recently proposed to detain only ‘criminal’ or ‘aggressive’ immigrants, which would be a big step forward if he weren’t planning, at the same time, to make illegal presence in the Netherlands itself a criminal act.
(The situation of undocumented immigrants has recently become a relevant issue for me personally as well – since a week and a half our house, which was way too big for the two of us anyway, is now also home to Jeanne from Congo & possibly other temporary roommates in the future. If you live in the Utrecht area and are able to offer emergency or longterm shelter – at least until the Dutch state is officially chastised by the ECSR for not doing so itself! – please contact the STIL foundation.)
Anyway. There’s a saying that churches should ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’, and even though I often feel that Western Christianity has lost much of its prophetic voice in this respect (not to mention how, in its attempts to be hip and contemporary, it tends to confuse actual relevance to society with the overuse of cringeworthy sports- and Facebook-themed metaphors) – both Pope Francis and the PKN have managed to do both this week. I applaud them – for speaking truth to power, for standing up for the weakest in society, for afflicting the comfortable, and for giving me some hope for the future of the Church.