Poland’s Catholic bishops call for solidarity with refugees amid Belarus border standoff

A group of migrants trapped at the border between Poland and Belarus, near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny A group of migrants trapped at the border between Poland and Belarus, near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny./ Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images.

Poland’s Catholic bishops have appealed for solidarity with refugees amid rising tensions at the country’s border with Belarus.

In an Aug. 22 statement, the bishops described the situation at the Poland-Belarus border as “disturbing.”

“Recently, there has been a disturbing phenomenon on our eastern border, where people from various countries try to get to Poland through Belarus,” said the communique issued by the Polish bishops’ council for migration, tourism, and pilgrimages.

“These are -- not infrequently politically stimulated -- consequences of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and more, resulting in the exodus of many people fearing for their own safety. We are aware of the complexity of geopolitical conditions causing current migration processes.”

“We are confident that those responsible for upholding the law will fully respect international obligations towards persons seeking protection, including the right to apply for international protection.”

Poland, a central European country with a population of 38 million, has sent troops to secure the roughly 250-mile border with Belarus as a record number of people attempt to cross the frontier.

More than 2,000 people have sought to make the crossing so far this month. Since Aug. 8, a group of 32 migrants has been trapped in a border area near the Polish village of Usnarz Górny.

The U.N. refugee agency has urged Poland to admit the group, whose members are believed to be from Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Polish government insists that they are economic migrants rather than asylum seekers and should remain in Belarus.

Meanwhile, Poland’s Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has announced plans to build a fence along the border with Belarus, a landlocked Eastern European country with a population of 9.5 million.

“Border Guard officers, faced with the difficult challenge of protecting the country’s borders, should be given the possibility to direct people crossing the border to centers for foreigners,” said the statement signed by Bishop Krzysztof Zadarko, chairman of the bishops’ council for migration, tourism, and pilgrimages.

“Support from the state is also required for the activities of organizations supporting refugees, which have been limited in recent years.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Belarusian authorities of forcing migrants to cross the border as part of a plan to destabilize Poland.

The Polish government argues that Belarus is fomenting the crisis in response to sanctions imposed by the European Union after Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in a disputed presidential election in Aug. 2020.

Lukashenko, who has led Belarus since 1994, launched a crackdown on protesters in the wake of the election. Those imprisoned included members of the country’s ethnic Polish minority.

At the start of August, Poland gave a humanitarian visa to the Belarusian athlete Krystina Timanovskaya, who defied an order to fly home early from the Olympics in Tokyo.

The border crisis has also affected Latvia and Lithuania, which, like Poland, are EU member states neighboring Belarus.

The bishops’ council called on Polish Catholics to uphold the Christian tradition of welcoming the stranger in need.

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“Indifference is not an authentically Christian attitude. Let us ignite in ourselves the imagination of mercy which will allow us to join in helping those who need it, thus undertaking the mission of the Good Samaritan,” it said.

“We ask people of goodwill -- regardless of their religion -- to show solidarity with those who come to us as war refugees, persecuted, or destitute.”

It also urged politicians and the media to exercise responsibility.

“We ask representatives of all political forces to work together to find solutions to the complex migration problems, guided above all by attitudes of hospitality, respect for newcomers, and the common good of Poles,” the statement said.

“Understandable concern for their own citizens cannot be a sufficient reason for closing the borders to those seeking refuge.”

It continued: “The media should build a culture of encounter rather than spreading prejudice and creating an atmosphere of insecurity, so we ask journalists and reporters to cover the situation of refugees and immigrants fairly.”

“Fostering resentment and hostility towards newcomers in dire situations is wrong. Anti-refugee or anti-immigrant narratives affect the lives of individuals. They are also ruinous to attempts at responsible community reflection on possible responses to complex migration issues.”

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“No media coverage of even the most difficult cases should lead to contempt for the migrant. They are our brothers and sisters in humanity and deserve help to find a place where they can live with dignity and contribute to civil society.”

“The doubts and fears that arise, on the other hand, must be resolved through genuine information, dialogue, and authentic witness. Human drama must not become an instrument for stirring up xenophobic sentiments, especially in the name of a falsely understood patriotism, which humiliates people coming from another region of the world, another culture, or another religion. Instilling fear of the other is inhuman and unchristian.”

The bishops’ council noted that for centuries Poles were forced to leave their homeland because of war and occupation.

“They experienced the help of people from other cultures and religions,” it said. “To deny newcomers their fundamental rights is to turn our back on our own history and to deny our Christian heritage.”

Polish bishops reiterated their appeal in a statement following a meeting of the Council of Diocesan Bishops in Jasna Góra, southern Poland, on Aug. 25.

They said: “In view of the events on Poland’s eastern border, and especially those in Afghanistan, the diocesan bishops recall that the situation of migrants and refugees should always raise understanding, compassion, and help.”

“To those who are fleeing persecution, we should show an attitude of Christian hospitality, while observing the applicable law which guarantees the safety of both refugees and the host community. We expect the state and local governments to work out appropriate mechanisms of assistance to refugees, which can be supported by the commitment of the Church in Poland.”

“The bishops also thank Caritas and the local communities for all their aid initiatives, as well as the soldiers and the Border Guards for their hard service. May Mary, Queen of Poland and Consoler of Migrants, be our guide and protector in this work.”

This report was updated at 00:53 MDT on Aug. 26, 2021, to include the statement from the Council of Diocesan Bishops