Catholic Church Struggles to Carry Out Pope’s Call to Take Care of Migrants as Venezuela’s Refugee Crisis Builds

A Venezuelan man stands over the crowd waiting to cross the border into Colombia through the Simon Bolivar bridge in San Antonio del Tachira, Venezuela, on July 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

Refugees fleeing Venezuela’s ongoing economic collapse are crossing the country’s borders to Colombia and Brazil, adding a new front in Latin America’s already critical migration situation, with thousands facing dangerous journeys to escape famine, poverty and political chaos.

Mormons, Baptists, Buddhists and other faith groups have stepped up their relief programs across Latin America, but for Catholic Church leaders, the flow of refugees has overwhelmed efforts to meet Pope Francis’ call to provide “hospitality and acceptance” for immigrants on his native continent.

Several Catholic congregations are devoted to immigration, such as the Scalabrini International Migration Network. “Other groups, among them the Jesuits, Franciscans, the Caritas organizations and some national conferences of bishops, are working hard on this issue,” said the Rev. Paolo Parise, leader of Missão Paz (Mission Our Lady of Peace), a welcome center in São Paulo for migrants and refugees.

“But, as a whole, the church still needs to wake up to this reality and follow the rhythm of the pope,” Parise said.

On World Youth Day in January, Pope Francis pressed the bishops of Central America in Panama on the region’s most urgent social issues, including migration.

“‘Welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating’ can be the four words with which the church, in this situation of mass migration, expresses her motherhood in the history of our time,” the pope said.

The Rev. Richard Garcia hands out free lunch to Venezuelan migrants at the Divina Providencia migrant shelter in La Parada, near Cucuta, Colombia, on the border with Venezuela, on Feb. 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

In the past few years, the region has seen waves of mass migration. In 2010 a major earthquake hit Haiti, bringing hundreds of thousands of desperate immigrants to South America, especially to Brazil. Now Venezuelans are fleeing President Nicolás Maduro’s unsteady regime, looking for both work and calm, as caravans of Central Americans head north to the United States.

Analysts estimate that 100,000 Venezuelans have taken up residence in Brazil, most of them since 2017, fleeing turmoil in their home country. At Missão Paz, 3,000 miles from the Venezuelan border, 29 of those seeking refuge are from Venezuela, constituting the biggest national community among the 17 nationalities currently represented there.

According to Bishop Mário Antônio da Silva of the Diocese of Roraima, which borders Venezuela, the situation reached a breaking point last summer. “In August there was an enormous tension on the border. Many Venezuelans were living on the streets without a shelter. Violence exploded, with regrettable xenophobic incidents. We followed the situation with great concern and tried to pacify it,” said Silva.

Fifty thousand Venezuelans now live in Roraima, the northern Brazilian state, out of a total state population of about 600,000.

Silva said the diocese offers free breakfast to 700 people daily, besides giving many of them clothes, shelter and medical assistance.

Last year, the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops decided that 40 percent of donations received for the Campaign for Fraternity, a Lenten drive, would be directed to the Diocese of Roraima to fund a monthly benefit paid to migrant families.

“But it’s not enough,” Silva said. “We have to help too many people and we’re operating at full capacity. There is no Plan B.”

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Source: Religion News Service