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13 Septiembre 2011 09:00 | Künstlerhaus am Lenbachplatz, Clubräume

Believers in Foreign Lands by Edgar Busuttil

Edgar Busuttil

Director del Centro Jesuita "Fe y Justicia", Malta

Malta is the smallest State in the European Union. Its population is around four hundred thousand and the area of the Maltese archipelago is three hundred and sixteen square kilometers. Between 2002 and 2009, thirteen thousand three hundred and thirty people arrived in Malta irregularly by precarious boats mainly from Libya. The majority of these people were Africans from Somalia; Eritrea and Nigeria. According to EU-Midis: A report on a survey carried out by the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union published in 2009, which focused on minorities in the EU, 52% of the 500 migrants of African origin interviewed in Malta said they felt discriminated against because of their ethnic origin while 64% of Muslims interviewed felt discriminated against.  This level of discrimination towards the irregular immigrants because of ethnic origin or religion or other reasons must help the Maltese reflect. What is the cause of their fears? Are these fears based on reality? Where will these fears lead to?

One cause of the fear is certainly that Malta feels it cannot cope on its own with the relatively large numbers of Africans which come over by boat. The Maltese authorities feel abandoned by other countries of the European Union. There is the fear that Malta is very small and that these people would take Maltese jobs and would have a negative effect on the economy. This is compounded by the way the immigrants are portrayed on the media. 

The policy of placing the immigrants in detention for long periods of time and their continued ghettoization in large open centres when they leave detention, which are overcrowded and in some places substandard is not helping their relationship with the Maltese. The impact on such towns as Birżebbuġa and Marsa, even on the visual landscape, has been strong. While the residents of Marsa and Birżebbuġa expressed concern at the fact that many foreigners have come to live on the outskirts, and also in the centre, very few immigrants live in other areas.  This concentration of immigrants in a very small number of places is leading to hostility towards immigrants in the villages around the open centres and utter indifference in the rest of the island towards the problems of both the immigrants and the Maltese people who feel that the social life in their town has been unjustly disrupted. 

Another cause is the fear of Islam and the fear that what is perceived as a large influx of people who profess this religion will have a negative effect on the predominant Catholic religion in Malta. This fear is often based on ignorance even of very basic facts about Islam; historical prejudices on Islam which have their roots in Maltese history; The way Islam has been portrayed in the media since 9/11; There is also the fact that the Maltese have a rather homogeneous cultural identity. With a large influx of people with different cultures many Maltese feel that their identity is under threat.

The Africans immigrants too have the temptation to build walls of fear and frustration. Many of them have had to escape oppressive regimes; risk their lives crossing the desert and the sea. Many have seen their loved ones and friends die on the way. When they come to Malta, which is Europe they expect to find freedom. Many of them come with the illusion that Europe is heaven on earth! Instead they are locked up in detention for a long time and are later overcrowded in open Centres. The majority of them do not want to stay in Malta but to move on to Europe. So they feel frustrated. They have little motivation to learn Maltese and to integrate with the Maltese. They feel frustrated and misunderstood and fearful of what they see as a hostile environment.  

It is clear that many Maltese and many irregular immigrants are believers: More than ninety percent of the Maltese population is Roman Catholic . The majority of the irregular immigrants coming by precarious boats from Africa are Muslims. Among the Africans there is a large number of Christians too. The greatest danger as I see it is for both the Maltese and the Africans to give in to their fears and even worse to allow the fears to manipulate faith on either side. The abuse of faith in this way would create even higher and stronger walls and legitimate hatred and division between either side. This would lead both Maltese and Africans nowhere and would erode their faith and true identity. 

It is clear that the challenge is for each side to deepen their own faith by getting in touch with the authentic roots of ones own faith. Only in this way would it be possible to build bridges with each other as new neighbors. The process would lead to a deepening of each others’ own faith and a discovery of each groups’ true identity.  In this last part of my input I will focus on one aspect which should help this process of building bridges through coming in touch with the roots of our different faiths: A central theme running through the sacred texts of all Abrahamic faiths concerns justice. All three Abrahamic faiths speak of humans’ responsibility to care for each other.

God placed Adam and Eve in the garden and instructed them to care for it. In the story of Cain and Abel, God sent the clear message that we are, indeed, our brother's and sister's keeper. In the tradition of the exodus from Egypt, we learn of God's compassionate response to misery, oppression, and slavery. God's law not only calls for individual piety but also communal responsibility for the well-being of all. 

God never asks us to love only those with whom we are intimately acquainted, but instead a more difficult love is required. Over and over, the law instructs us to remember the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan and the widow—those most vulnerable to hunger, poverty and disenfranchisement—and ties this instruction to the exodus 

When you gather your crops and fail to bring in some of the grain that you have cut, do not go back for it; it is to be left for the foreigners, orphans, and widows. . . . When you have gathered your grapes once, do not go back over the vines a second time; the grapes that are left are for the foreigners, orphans and widows. Never forget that you were slaves in Egypt; that is why I have given you this command. (Deuteronomy 24:19-22) 

In his well-known prophetic description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus, by associating the foreigner with the hungry and thirsty, the naked, the sick and the prisoners, draws our attention to the precarious living conditions of foreigners.  Jesus is not preaching salvation by works in this text, but he clearly shows us that true belief in him necessarily manifests itself in acts of solidarity towards those most in need, including foreigners:  ‘I was a stranger and you invited me in’.

Jesus affirms this teaching of the law and brings out its full meaning in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37).  He clearly links together these two commandments to love our neighbor and to love the alien.  At the time the Samaritans were not only foreigners but long-standing enemies of the Jews. (cf Jn 4:9).  

Islam considers both Jewish and Christian texts to be sacred, but it is in the Qur’an that Muslims find their guide for living. The Qur’an includes giving money to the travelling alien in its definition of the righteous:

Righteousness is not turning your face towards the east or the west. Righteous are those who believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Scriptures, and the prophets; and they give money, cheerfully to the relatives, the orphans, the needy, the travelling alien, the beggars, and to free the slaves; and they observe the Contact Prayers (Salat) and give the obligatory charity (Zakat); and they keep their word whenever they make a promise; and they steadfastly persevere in the face of persecution, hardship and war. These are the truthful; these are the righteous. Sura [2: 177]

All three Abrahamic faiths, then, call their people to action—to heal the sick, care for the indigent, welcome the stranger and advocate for social justice.  If each believer in Malta would listen to the roots of his/her own faith, each would hear the same message: Accept strangers. Do not be afraid of them. See in them their true reality: They are your brothers and sisters 

Malta is the smallest nation in the European Union. It is the country in Europe where most people are believers . If believers in Malta (both Maltese and African) would take on this challenge to find the strength in their own faith to overcome their fears of others and build real bridges with them; then Malta could be a model and encouragement for believers in the rest of Europe to do the same.  


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