South African churches rally to help victims of xenophobic violence

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNS) -- Hundreds of victims of xenophobic violence in South Africa are being housed in church halls in Durban as the country's faith communities and civil society rally to help those displaced.

"We're housing more than 430 people, mostly from Zimbabwe, but also from Mozambique, Malawi, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Hupenyu Makusha, a coordinator in the Durban archdiocesan pastoral care for refugees project.

Churches in Durban have made their halls available for temporary housing and many people have donated food, blankets and clothes, Makusha told Catholic News Service in a May 27 telephone interview from Durban.

When the immediate crisis is over, the archdiocesan project will help with "voluntary repatriation for those who would rather go home than stay in the hostile atmosphere in South Africa," Makusha said.

More than 50 people have been killed in attacks on foreigners in South Africa. More than 30,000 people have been displaced and hundreds of suspects arrested since the attacks started in mid-May.

South African churches, faith communities and civil society are cooperating in their efforts to help the victims of the violence, said Kabelo Selema, who heads the justice and peace department for the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference in Pretoria, in a May 27 telephone interview from Pretoria.

The commission plans for June 22 to be a "day of prayer for those affected by xenophobia as well as for the people in Zimbabwe," where a runoff presidential election is scheduled for June 27, Selema said.

"We need to reflect on what we, as Christians, can do," Selema said.

Up to 3 million Zimbabweans are estimated to have fled to South Africa to escape violence, severe shortages of basic commodities and 80 percent unemployment.

Ten million people are estimated to have come to South Africa seeking a better life since apartheid ended in 1994.

Archbishop George Daniel of Pretoria said that attacks on foreigners signal a lack of generosity to receive immigrants and asylum seekers.

"Xenophobia is a serious offense against God precisely because it violates the innate dignity of the human person," Archbishop Daniel and the priests in his archdiocese said in a May 22 statement. "At its core, xenophobia is a failure to love our neighbor. Since we cannot claim to love God unless we love our neighbor, we can only be one with God if we reject xenophobia and work aggressively to remove it from our personal lives, our church and our society."

The priests said they would do all they could to "offer all immigrants the pastoral care they need" and urged Catholics to offer them "hospitality, not hostility."

The Catholic Church is "extremely diverse, representing races and ethnic groups from every part of the globe," they said.

Noting that the situation is complex, the priests said South African President Thabo Mbeki's policy of quiet diplomacy in Zimbabwe "has proven fatal" and blamed the South African government for "not doing everything in its power to avert the causes that led to a looming immigrant crisis."

Noting that "the systematic lack of service delivery is a breeding ground for crime and lawlessness," they said, "Let us ensure that all South Africans and immigrants have access to basics: employment, food, shelter and dignity."

Zimbabwe's Jesuits called the xenophobic attacks "alarming news for our cross-border traders whose livelihood depends on going to South Africa to buy goods for resale in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabweans are now "caught between" the violence in their home country that followed March 29 elections and attacks on them in South Africa, they said in their late May newsletter.

Copyright (c) 2008 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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