25 April 2016, The Tablet

Catholic bishop refuses Austria permission to build border fence

Keeping out migrants seeking help is against teaching of Gospel and Pope Francis, says diocesan bishop

The border fence currently being constructed by Austria to keep migrants from crossing into the country from neighbouring Hungary will have a Catholic sized hole in it after a diocesan bishop refused the government permission to build on church land.

The wall - which is due to be more than five miles long in Austria’s eastern Burgenland province (see map below) - was ordered by the government of Catholic Chancellor Werner Feymann in a bid to cut the number of migrants looking to avoid controls at authorised crossings. But owners of property along the fence must agree to allow it on their land.

But in a statement to the Austria Press Agency Diocesan Bishop Ägidius Johann Zsifkovics, who has church authority in the region, confirmed the church's refusal to cooperate because building a fence to keep people seeking help out was against the spirit of the Gospel.

In a statement Zsifkovics said: “[A fence] would contradict the spirit of the Gospel, Pope Francis’s clear message to Europe, and in particular for a diocese that was in the shadow of the Iron Curtain for decades. We need to tackle today’s problems at their root and that means stopping organised human trafficking, stopping sales of European arms, stopping war and the deliberate destabilisation of the Middle East."

He added: “I was raised under the Iron Curtain and still know what it meant for us all and for Burgenland for freedom and awakening, as the wall finally fell.” Zsifkovics is the refugee and integration commissioner for the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community.

The stance of the Catholic Church in Austria is just one voice in a debate about migration that is polarising the country. In the first round of voting for a new president - a largely ceremonial role but a significant poll ahead of general elections in 2018 - a renegade far-right anti-migration candidate took a clear lead after Sunday's voting.

Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer garnered 36.4 per cent of the vote, ahead of pro-migrant candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who secured nearly 20.4 per cent of the vote. The two ruling coalition parties fared poorly, each receiving around 11 per cent of the vote. It is the first time in Austria since the Second World War that any incumbent party has not made it to the second round of voting.

Elsewhere this weekend, Austrian police were forced to repel protesters from the Italian side of the border who were angry at plans for tighter border checks at the busy Alpine Brenner Pass border. The Pass is the most important Alpine crossing for heavy goods traffic and the controls, which are expected to begin in May, would slow Italy's main transport link to Germany, its top trading partner.

Meanwhile, two British nationals - aged 26 and 31 - were arrested by Hungarian police on Saturday night (23 April) accused of trying to transport more than a dozen migrants illegally to Austria.



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