Sunday 17 December 2017

Pope urges US Congress to react humanely to refugees

Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP
Pope Francis listens to applause before addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP
Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) look on in the House of Representatives Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington

Philip Pullella in Washington

POPE Francis has challenged America's politicians to defend and preserve the dignity of all Americans, introducing himself as "a son of this great continent" as he became the first pontiff in history to address a joint meeting of Congress.

Entering a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, cabinet officials and politicians of both parties, Francis united the often-warring factions before he opened his mouth as the crowd stood to deliver a standing ovation.

The sergeant at arms intoned "Mr Speaker, the Pope of the Holy See," and Francis made his way up the centre aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as politicians applauded enthusiastically, some lowering their heads in bows.

The Argentine Pope spoke from the same dais where presidents deliver their State of the Union speeches. Behind him sat vice president Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, the first and second in line to the presidency, both Catholics.

"Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility," Francis said in his opening remarks. "Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation."

"Legislative activity is always based on care for the people," Francis said. "To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you."

Politicians of all political backgrounds and religious affiliations eagerly welcomed the Pope, pledging to pause from the bickering and dysfunction that normally divide them. Outside, tens of thousands of spectators gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol and beyond, and many more were watching on TV around the world.

Security was tight outside the building, with streets around the Capitol blocked off and a heavy police presence that rivalled an inauguration or State of the Union address by the US president. The scene on the West Lawn of the Capitol was festive but orderly as thousands awaited the Pope's appearance on the House Speaker's Balcony after his speech to Congress.

The Pope also told Congress that the US should reject hostility to immigrants and treat them humanely, directly addressing a thorny subject that is dividing the country and stirring debate in the 2016 presidential campaign.

He said the United States "must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past," when dealing with immigrants.

"Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility," the 78-year-old Francis told the Republican-dominated legislature.

Aversion to illegal immigrants has featured heavily in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Front-runner Donald Trump says he would deport the 11 million undocumented immigrants if he were elected to the White House and has accused Mexico of sending rapists and other criminals across the border.

Speaking in English, Francis said America should not be put off by the number of immigrants. "We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal," he said.

Irish Independent

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