Austrian riot police clash with protesters April 24 during a rally against the government's planned re-introduction of border controls at Brenner Pass near Italy. CNS photo/Courtesy of Jan Hetfleisch, EPA

Bridges over barriers

  • May 6, 2016

Good fences make good neighbours, wrote Robert Frost. But don’t try telling that to the bishop of Eisenstadt, Austria.

Bishop Agidius Zsfikovics, taking the Year of Mercy message to heart, has refused to allow government builders onto Church property to complete a border fence intended to keep out refugees. His edict has drawn wide criticism in a nation and continent growing increasingly jaded by a relentless flow of economic migrants and Syrian war refugees. But we say bravo to the bishop for a brave stand.

“A border fence contradicts both the Gospel and the clear appeal of Pope Francis to Europe,” the bishop told local media.

Austria has been erecting anti-refugee fences along its southern borders with Italy and Slovenia for the past six months. Bad enough. But recently it started work on a fence along part of its Hungarian border. That’s where fence builders ran into the contrarian bishop in the town of Moschendorf.

He is ready to welcome police and border guards onto Church land to keep the peace and process asylum seekers, but he rejects callous policies that build walls and deny mercy to desperate people. So this fence will have a hole. The Christian response, he quite rightly insists, is to open doors, provide shelter and “guarantee (refugees) dignity with an open heart.”

“This is especially true in our diocese, which functioned in the shadow of the Iron Curtain,” he said. “It’s impossible for me, in every fibre in my body, to enter the 21st century agreeing to build fences. I grew up with the Iron Curtain and experienced the humiliation at the border crossing.”

Those are words to be commended. Fences like this are an affront to dignity. They are simplistic, knee-jerk reactions that pander to some of society’s most ignoble instincts while failing to solve — or compassionately acknowledge — an underlying human crisis. Speaking last year about a razor-wire fence erected by Hungary to close its border to refugees entering from Serbia, Pope Francis said walls are never a Christian response.

“You know how walls finish up?” the Pope asked. “All walls collapse. Today, tomorrow or after 100 years. Walls are not the solution. The problems remain, but with more hate.”

Francis has consistently advocated bridges, not barriers. He has delivered that message in prayer at the separation wall that divides Bethlehem from Israel and again at the American-built fence along the Mexican border. “A person who thinks only about building walls and not building bridges is not Christian,” he said in February.

It really is that simple. We are called to answer suffering with outstretched arms. That may sometimes be difficult and occasionally be risky. But, as one Austrian bishop understands, it is Christian.

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