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I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me


I was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me
A Pastoral Letter to all Catholics of the Bishops of Zambia
20 June 2001

To mark the world Refugee Day in 2001, the Bishops decided to raise concern on the plight of refugees in Zambia. The continued fighting in Congo DRC led to thousands of people seeking refugee status in Zambia in 2001. This raised the number of refugees in Zambia to more than 250,000. This big influx of refugees made Zambia the Country with the highest refugees in Southern Africa. This new influx of refugees was in addition to the long term Angolan refugees some of whom have now been in Zambia for more than thirty years. Some families are now in their third generation in Zambia having grandchildren born to them since they arrived.

It is the official treatment of these refugees and growing xenophobia which prompted the Bishops to issue this Pastoral Letter. They illustrate the severe restrictions that the Zambian law puts on refugees making it very difficult for these refugees to rebuild their lives. Furthermore, what is supposed to be a provisional status has now become a permanent status as refugees for refugees who came many years ago Their Children and grandchildren are now technically stateless as they are classified as refugees even though they have been born in Zambia.

It is in this light that the bishops called for law reform to reclassify the long term refugees as residents so that they can rebuild their lives. They implored all Zambians to have the Christian spirit of welcoming strangers as Jesus Christ taught us,. He himself having been a "refugee" when his parents fled to Egypt from King Herod in Israel.


The Church hears the suffering cry of all who are uprooted from their own land, of families forcefully separated, of those who are unable to find a stable home anywhere. She senses the anguish of those without rights, without any security, at the mercy of every kind of exploitation, and she supports them in their unhappiness. (John Paul II, Message World Migrations and Refugee Day 2000)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

    On the 20th of June we celebrate the World Refugee Day. Later in the year (August/September), South Africa (Durban) will host the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. It is a valuable opportunity for the Christians of Zambia to reflect on the situations that have brought to us so many brothers and sisters in need of protection and support in rebuilding their lives torn by violence. It is also time to reflect on how our society is responding to their plight and to examine our conscience in front of the Risen Lord.

    Jesus Himself Was A Refugee

  1. Jesus himself was a refugee at a certain time in his life. The exclamation of Simeon in the Gospel according to Luke still resounds among us: “See him; he will be for the rise or fall of the multitudes of Israel. He shall stand as a sign of contradiction ... Then the secret thoughts of many may be brought to light”. (Lk 2, 34-35).
  2. And so it was: the intentions in the heart of the powerful of that time were uncovered and Jesus had to be taken by Joseph and Mary to Egypt, fleeing persecution from Herod. Matthew narrates it: “After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you for Herod will soon be looking for the child in order to kill him. Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod”. (Mt 2,13-16).
  3. Today some hidden intentions in our hearts are uncovered by our attitudes towards those who have been forced to leave their homes fleeing war and persecution. Very often they have experienced violence directly in their families: many of them have lost close relatives, seen killings and massacres, suffered unjust imprisonment and torture, and experienced the abuse of armed people against peaceful civilian populations. When they made the difficult decision to abandon their Country of origin, they left behind all that they had to live for: extended family and tribe, profession and assets, house and land. They come to us destitute, looking for protection and for help to rebuild their lives. But they also come with all their potential to contribute to humanity, advance development, and enrich our society with their traditions and culture.

    Zambia As A Country Of Asylum

  4. Since the beginning of our existence as an independent nation, Zambia has been a safe haven for refugees coming from other countries in the region. We received refugees from the wars of liberation in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, and also from civil wars like the one in Mozambique. Those refugees were able to go back to their countries following the end of the conflicts and the arrival of peace. The Zambian people and their Government have always fostered peace and stability in the region, as a way of contributing to the prevention and solution of refugee situations.
  5. When peace efforts fail, we know that it is the human and religious duty of every Zambian to welcome refugees and to offer them the opportunity to participate in our social setting, so that they can rebuild their lives and contribute to ours in the most positive way. We 438 Pastoral Letters and Statements commend the Government for its efforts in cooperation with UNHCR and other agencies over the years. At the same time, we hope that the standards achieved in the treatment of refugees by Zambia won't be degraded but improved in the future.

    The Action Of The Church In Favour Of Refugees

  6. The Catholic Church in Zambia has been present on the side of refugees and asylum seekers for decades, trying to contribute to the efforts of other organizations. It has offered pastoral attention to the refugees and has channelled assistance sent to them by donors. The Catholic Commissions for Justice and Peace have promoted the rights of the refugees and advocated on their behalf. Some diocesan Departments of Development have worked in support of new arrivals and refugee initiatives in the developmental field. Catholic agencies, like the Jesuit Refugee Service, have been formally mandated by the Zambian Episcopal Conference to enhance the capacity of the Church to answer to the challenges posed by the different refugee situations in the Country. A program led by the Archdiocese of Lusaka Refugee Desk and the Jesuit Refugee Service is advocating in favour of refugees and asylum seekers detained under no criminal charges. Furthermore, hundreds if not thousands of priests, religious and lay members of the Church have committed themselves to organizations that help refugees, or through personal initiatives in support of refugees close to them. As a concrete manifestation of the fraternity of the children of God, orphanages, education facilities, and health services under the care of the Church accept refugees on the same grounds as Zambian citizens.
  7. This way the Catholic Church in Zambia is answering to the call of the Synod of Africa:
    “One of the bitterest fruits of wars and economic hardships is the sad phenomenon of refugees and displaced persons, a phenomenon which, as the Synod mentioned, has reached tragic dimensions. The ideal solution is the re-establishment of a just peace, reconciliation and economic development. It is therefore urgent that national, regional and international organizations should find equitable and long-lasting solutions to the problems of refugees and displaced persons. In the meantime, since the Continent continues to suffer from the massive displacement of refugees, I make a pressing appeal that these people be given material help and offered pastoral support wherever they may be, whether in Africa or on other Continents”. (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa, #119)

    Issues of Concern

  8. On the grounds of this experience of the Church in regards to refugees and asylum seekers, we detect some concerning issues taking place among us. In light of this, we want to propose to the faithful for their own reflection and, if necessary, for a change of attitude that follows the conversion of the heart.

    Growing Xenophobia

  9. The first issue is the increase of negative feelings towards outsiders among the Zambian people, clearly fostered by a xenophobic campaign developed by some elements of the mass media. Let us remember the words of the Holy Father on this matter:
    “The mass media can play an important role, both positive and negative. Their activity can foster a proper evaluation and better understanding of the problems of the "new arrivals", dispelling prejudices and emotional reactions, or instead, it can breed rejection and hostility, impeding and jeopardizing proper integration.” (John Paul II, Message WMRD 1998)
  10. Reading the newspapers, one easily detects a campaign that intends to identify refugees and asylum seekers as criminals, blaming them for many of the difficulties that our society is suffering. While only the author of a crime can be blamed for it, refugees are repeatedly criminalized as a group. No other sector of our society would be subjected to such treatment. We watch with dismay as even politicians and civil servants – who should orientate our people in the respect of human rights and the rule of law – sometimes produce statements which tend to foster rejection in disgrace towards our fellow Africans.
  11. We are obliged to note that any criminal accusation must be addressed exclusively against the subjects in the case and must be followed by prosecution in court according to the Law. General criminalization of a social group is an expression of racism and xenophobia completely contrary to the Law of God and to the tradition of hospitality that the Zambian people have always honoured.
  12. With this public remark we fulfil the command of Jean Paul II:

    “It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behaviour, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations.

    When an understanding of the problem is conditioned by prejudice and xenophobic attitudes, the Church must not fail to speak up for brotherhood and to accompany it with acts testifying to the primacy of charity”.
    (John Paul II, Message WMRD 1996)
  13. We are convinced that any difficulty arising between refugees and Zambian people can be generally solved through dialogue, or through lawful enforcement of the current regulations if dialogue were to fail. There is no need or justification for abuse – verbal or otherwise – against those we are committed to protect from the abuse that forced them to flee their own countries.

    Restriction of Rights and Difficulties to Rebuild the Life in Zambia

  14. A second issue of concern for the pastors of the Catholic Church in Zambia has to do with refugees who have stayed among us for a long time. While Zambia and its authorities are to be praised for their policy of open borders to individuals seeking asylum, their initial treatment of those asylum seekers, and the allocation of land for them to settle on while in our Country, some basic rights are withheld from refugees by the Law of the land. They include such basic rights as the freedom of movement, the right to freely engage in salaried work or start a business, the right to property, and the right to a Nationality.
  15. When the refugee situation is brief, these rights may be felt as secondary in contrast with more primary needs. But Zambia has received refugees fleeing long-lasting conflicts, like the ones in Angola or in the Great Lakes region. These conflicts have gone on for decades and it is feared that they are likely to last many more years. The events in some of these regions are so terrible that it is difficult to imagine refugees being able to go back home in their lifetimes. The length of stay of some refugees in Zambia has already produced a second and even a third generation of persons born in the Country that do not possess Zambian Nationality and are subject to the same restrictions as their parents and grandparents.
  16. For thousands of our brothers and sisters, their provisional situation as refugees in Zambia has thus become permanent. The restriction on their basic rights is preventing many of them from rebuilding normal lives. It makes them vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and exploitation. When it lasts for years and decades, this situation has to be considered decidedly inhuman.
  17. Consequently, we call on the Zambian people to offer such long-term refugees opportunities to participate in all aspects of our social life, so that they can integrate themselves into our society and rebuild their lives in safety and stability. Against the xenophobic statements that are continuously served up for public opinion, we call the attention of the Zambian people to the great potential for contribution to the Country’s development that would result from integration of long-term refugees with whom we enjoy mutual familiarity.
  18. This call has a special meaning for the Zambian Catholic faithful and their pastors. It is our duty to keep our congregations, social services, justice and peace work, and developmental initiatives open to those who desire a place where they can feel part of us, protected and welcomed in a communion of fraternity, the Family of God. Whatever their origin or religion, this is requested from us by our faith, as the Pope remarks:
    “Catholicity is not only expressed in the fraternal communion of the baptized, but also in the hospitality extended to the stranger, whatever his religious belief, in the rejection of all racial exclusion or discrimination, in the recognition of the personal dignity of every man and woman and, consequently, in the commitment to furthering their inalienable rights”. (John Paul II, Message WMRD 1999)
  19. Many refugees and asylum seekers can be counted among the poorest of the poor, due to the losses they suffered when leaving their Country and to the legal restrictions imposed on them afterwards. The Catholic Church in Zambia feels itself bound to them by the commitment assumed by the Bishops of Africa in their Synod:
    “Strengthened by faith and hope in the saving power of Jesus, the Synod Fathers concluded their work by renewing their commitment to accept the challenge of being instruments of salvation in every area of the life of the peoples of Africa. "The Church", they declared, "must continue to exercise her prophetic role and be the voice of the voiceless", so that everywhere the human dignity of every individual will be acknowledged”. (John Paul II, Ecclesia in Africa, #70).
  20. Finally, we call on the authorities to reconsider their policies and to develop legal schemes which allow refugees to recover their full rights when they are forced to stay in Zambia due to the continuation of conflict or persecution in their countries of origin. We also call on the authorities to step up their efforts to protect refugees and asylum seekers from any abuse or arbitrariness resulting from the restriction of their rights by the Law.
  21. In the end of times, we all shall be judged by the fate of our brothers and sisters in proportion to our responsibility in that fate and to the power we had to improve it. Again in the words of the Holy Father:
    “Jesus' demanding assertion: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me" (Mt 25:35) retains its power in all circumstances and challenges the conscience of those who intend to follow in his footsteps. For the believer, accepting others is not only philanthropy or a natural concern for his fellow man. It is far more, because in every human being he knows he is meeting Christ, who expects to be loved and served in our brothers and sisters, especially in the poorest and neediest”. (John Paul II, Message WMRD 1998)


Archbishop Medardo Mazombwe – (ZEC President)

For and on behalf of all the Catholic Bishops of Zambia
Zambia Episcopal Conference
20th June 2001, Lusaka World Refugee Day