Refugee crisis requires both open doors and vigilance

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January 11, 2016

The Canadian people and government deserve congratulations for their openness to receiving large numbers of Syrian refugees. Although the new Liberal government has promised to accept 25,000 refugees, the numbers may end up being higher, a fact with which the majority of Canadians are comfortable.

Yet, one should not become too smug in comparing the Canadian receptivity to refugees with the xenophobia sweeping the United States. The Canadian experience is much different than that of any other nation. Canada has not had to deal with large numbers of illegal immigrants or refugees. We have been able to screen migrants and choose those most likely to make positive contributions to our culture and economy.

As well, Canada has considerable successful experience in accepting and integrating refugees, a fact which has bolstered the national commitment to multiculturalism. We have numerous agencies, such as Catholic Social Services, skilled in refugee settlement. Canada knows refugee integration involves much more than helping newcomers find a home and a job.

We deplore U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's stand that his country's borders should be closed to Muslims. Freedom of religion is a basic human right, and non-Christians are as deserving of assistance as are Christians. This insistence on religious liberty is not mere humanism; it is a stance grounded in Catholic teaching.

Nevertheless, refugees should be carefully screened before being allowed entry to Canada. The upsurge in Islamist terrorism in recent decades and its expansion to Western nations are emblematic of deep fissures in the Muslim world. The cold and not-so-cold war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is rooted in the early decades of Islam in the seventh century and will not be quickly or easily resolved.

Almost as deep are the tensions between secular and highly traditionalist factions within Islam.

Georgetown University professor John Esposito says one place that divide exists is in the education system. On one hand, religious Islamist schools teach their students a literalist understanding of the Qur'an, ignore or oppose anything resembling science, and have a negative view of the modern world. On the other hand, secular schools ignore Islamic religious and cultural traditions and train students for work in the modern economy but give them no preparation to help Islam evolve and interact positively with modernity. There is little middle ground.

Further, Islam, unlike Catholicism, has no central teaching authority which could foster evolution in doctrine and help overcome a literalist understanding of the Qur'an.

Canada cannot and should not seek to strip Muslims of their faith. Nevertheless, the growth of Islamist terrorism is not simply the result of undesirable social conditions, but also of features ingrained in the Muslim world. The vast majority of Muslims oppose violence and seek peace. Canada's refugee acceptance programs should be vigilant and weed out the small minority who do not.