Church leaders urge Baker to welcome more Syrian refugees

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BOSTON – Bay State church leaders are taking a stand on the Syrian refugee crisis, sending a clear message to Gov. Charlie Baker that they want Massachusetts to welcome those fleeing civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

To that end, eight leaders from the Massachusetts Council of Churches requested that Baker “welcome all strangers,” in an open letter dated Wednesday.

Baker, a Republican, joined dozens of governors nationwide on Monday in rejecting the resettlement of more Syrian refugees until more is known about how they are screened to prevent security threats. In fiscal 2015, 85 Syrians resettled in Massachusetts, up from four in the previous year, according to the state Office for Refugees and Immigrants.

However, Baker, who is on vacation, didn’t join 27 other Republican governors in signing a letter to the White House Friday asking President Barack Obama to review screening methods and deal with gaps in the process that FBI Director James Comey said exist, in recent congressional testimony. In the meantime, the governors asked Obama to halt refugee resettlement for Syrians.

“Governor Baker believes that Massachusetts has a role in welcoming refugees into the commonwealth and in the wake of recent, terrible tragedies overseas is working to ensure the public’s safety and security despite the limited role state governments play in the process,” Lizzy Guyton, Baker’s spokeswoman, said in response to inquiries about both the GOP and the church leaders’ letters.

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to suspend Syrian and Iraqi resettlements, despite the threat of a veto of the GOP-sponsored bill. The measure would require the FBI to conduct background checks on those seeking resettlement and for certifications by leaders of the FBI, Homeland Security Department and the director of national intelligence that each refugee does not pose a security threat.

The Boston-based ecumenical council is made up of 15 denominations, from the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston to the American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. Signers of the letter included Episcopal Bishop Gayle Harris, the president of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, and New England Bishop James Hazelwood of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

“We understand your priority is the safety of Massachusetts residents. Our safety is at greater risk if we let Daesh compromise our values by acting out of fear instead of compassion,” the pastors wrote, using an acronym for the Islamic State’s full Arabic name. Daesh is also an insult that can mean “to crush or trample” or “bigot” in Arabic.

“Please reconsider your decision to stop welcoming Syrian parents and children into our state,” the church leaders said. “These are innocent, suffering people.”

“Refugees do not bring terror, they are fleeing it,” the letter continued. “We are prepared to welcome and support Syrian refugees. Our churches are in every single city and town of Massachusetts. We believe in a commonwealth and a nation that lives out of our deepest values, not our fears.”

Steve Abdow, lay canon of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts who drafted the letter, said that it was important both to articulate internal unity over the issue, and to communicate the church leaders’ stance to the governor.

“I believe that across the heads of basically all major denominations across Massachusetts are unanimous in this,” Abdow said. “We’re not saying we don’t care about the safety of the commonwealth – it’s compassion for these people who have suffered beyond the pale.”

He added that as of Friday evening, he was not aware of a response from Baker’s administration to the letter.

Nationwide, faith groups that have traditionally aligned with Republicans – like evangelicals and some Catholics – are breaking with party leaders to advocate for refugees. Evangelical humanitarian organization World Relief launched a refugee advocacy website and on Tuesday, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged a national welcome of displaced Syrians.

Other opponents of suspending Syrian resettlements in the state have set a protest rally against Baker’s stance on the issue for 6:30 p.m. Friday in front of the State House.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis