(RNS) – On Sunday, December 5, Pope Francis, visiting the Greek island of Lesvos, made a moving speech to make European states more welcoming to foreign migrants. The pontiff called to Europeans to stop ignoring their suffering, insisting that Jesus “is present in the stranger, in the refugee, in those who are naked and hungry”.
“I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical contempt that casually condemns the marginalized to death,” he said.
Francis clearly relies on the faith of his listeners to motivate his audience to see refugees as neighbors and to work towards what he called “the miracle of an” ever wider “us. But how common is it for faith to elicit compassion in refugees? Does religiosity make people more welcoming – or more suspicious – of strangers?
Sociologists of religions struggled with it question for years. Some researchers suggested that religion promotes altruistic norms that encourage people to help strangers, pointing to faith-based organizations that to play crucial roles in partnership with or same to push governments to welcome refugees.
RELATED: South Sudanese Refugees Build House and Church in Central New York
Other researchers argued that increased religiosity is in fact linked to stronger prejudices against migrants, especially when a majority religious group feels its position is threatened by newcomers.
The effectiveness of Francis’ message largely depends on the religious contexts and personal religious practices of his listeners, according to Kenneth Vaughan, a sociologist from the University of Connecticut who has studied the links between religion and anti-immigrant sentiment.
In a study published in the fall issue of the journal Sociology of Religion, Vaughan examined how religiosity influenced Europeans’ attitudes towards refugees.
After sifting through the 2016 data from the European social survey (ESS), a large-scale cross-national study, Vaughan found that most people, including those with no religious affiliation, were more supportive than restrictive when asked to admit refugees to their countries. But some characteristics were more likely to foster welcoming attitudes than others.
Attendance at church services is a factor, Vaughan said. Christians and Muslims who attended services often tended to favor more generous policies towards refugees than their fellow believers who attended less frequently. This tendency was particularly noticeable among Catholics.
But even that is complicated. Overall, Vaughan found, Catholics prefer significantly more restrictive policies than unaffiliated ones. It was only Catholics who frequented church frequently who had more generous political preferences than unaffiliated ones.
Vaughan suggested that European Catholics – the largest religious group in many of the countries studied – might “have the most to lose” from demographic change.
Unless these Catholics are “imbued with the religious messages of the communities with which they identify,” Vaughan wrote in the report – that is, they regularly occupy the pews – “European Catholics may be more likely to be seen in terms of demographics rather than religious objectives. . “
Vaughan also found that religious minorities were more open to welcoming refugees to their countries than other religious groups and unaffiliated people. Since Muslims constitute a many of the most recent refugees, they might be more inclined to sympathize with other newcomers, Vaughan said.
Europeans were more likely to support generous refugee policies in areas where a higher proportion of the population is Protestant or Catholic. This seemed to be true regardless of their own religion or whether or not they identified with a religious tradition.
As a sociologist and Christian, Vaughan told Religion News Service that the results he found were “encouraging and humbling.”
âIt tells me that our religious traditions offer us something worth celebrating and something that offers practical help to those in need who come to our shores. On the other hand, it also tells us that there is a myriad of possibilities for our less religious and non-religious peers to be part of it as well, âhe said. âAnd the risks of falling into dangerous patterns of nativism are just as real for religious populations as secular populations. “
Vaughan warned that while the data provides insight into the attitudes of Europeans in 2016, national and regional conversations and ideas about refugees and other topics can change quickly.
âWhile I see some very clear and powerful effects of religiosity here, I wouldn’t want to dwell on universalizing statements that one group is more refugee-friendly than others,â he said.
Other researchers have proposed different ways of measuring the effects of religiosity on attitudes towards migrants.
Verena benoit, lecturer at Ludwig-Maximilians-UniversitÃ¤t MÃ¼nchen in Germany, suggested that religiosity should be assessed alongside other factors, such as people’s attachment to values ââsuch as altruism and benevolence on the one hand , or tradition, power and security on the other hand. She also wished to know whether the respondents expressed the feeling of being threatened by immigrants, realistically or symbolically.
In a ESS data analysis published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion in May, Benoit found that respondents’ concerns about the threat posed by immigrants had a much stronger direct effect on their attitudes, followed by their values. Religiosity actually had the weakest direct effect. (Benoit explicitly focused his study on immigrants, not refugees.)
Benoit, who relied on self-reported religiousness levels for her study, said these patterns held up even when she reassessed the data using frequency of service attendance and respondents’ prayer frequency.
Vaughan said that in countries with a high level of Catholic religiosity, where national and regional leaders actively communicate Francis’ message to Catholics laymen, the Pope’s trip to Lesvos could re-energize activism around refugees. But it’s not guaranteed, he said, pointing out Poland, a country with a large Catholic population where anti-migrant rhetoric is becoming increasingly popular.
âPope Francis inspiring compassion towards migrants among Polish Catholic laity poses a major political risk for some politicians,â he said. “I wouldn’t expect Francis’s messages to be unmatched out there.”
Pope’s visit comes as European countries as a whole take tougher stances on migration from Muslim-majority countries in response to new wave of refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country this summer. In the past, the presence of Muslim immigrants in Europe has caused consternation among some Christians – in a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017, around 27% of European Catholics and 20% of European Protestants said they felt like foreigners in their own country because of the number of Muslims in attendance.
After his first trip to Lesbos in 2016, FranÃ§ois brought three Syrian refugee families with him to Rome – who were all Muslims. To mark his recent visit, Francis plans to transfer 12 Cypriot asylum seekers to Italy, according to the Associated press.
Of course, studying the data on religiosity can only reveal part of the picture. At the individual level, the faith-based drive to care for migrants has the potential to radically change a person’s life. This is what happened to Ewa Pliszczak, a native Polish woman. Catholic sister who had work as a youth advisor in the UK since 2002.
RELATED: How a Chicago Church Pledges to Help Afghan Evacuees
After several meetings with refugee families she had met through her religious congregation, the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Spirit, Pliszczak felt called to do more. So she packed her bags and moved 2,000 miles to Greece volunteer with Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
Whether she is interacting with refugee children in Victoria Square in Athens or chatting with parents who stop by the JRS donation center to pick up clothes, shoes, diapers and toys, Pliszczak said that ‘she constantly thinks about the story of Good Samaritan – a parable Jesus told about a man who goes out of his way to care for a stranger in need.
“This passage echoes in my heart every day: ‘Who is my neighbor today?'” She said.
Ahead of the Trend is a collaborative effort between Religion News Service and the Association of Religious Data Archives made possible by the support of the John Templeton Foundation. See other Ahead of the Trend articles here.