Bro. Ġwann Xerri has received hate mail from fellow priests for his views on immigration. He says Malta's recent stand-off with Italy over the fate of a boatload of immigrants threw him into a moral dilemma, and yet the country's leaders were categorical about being "morally" correct. He spoke about his fears of living in a country that is losing its humanity.
Bro. Xerri does not want to point fingers, because there are no easy clear-cut answers. He does not say Malta was legally wrong to refuse entry to the migrants rescued off Lampedusa two weeks ago, but that the discourse used during the stand-off scared him. What if the incident had a tragic ending? What if Italy continued to refuse? Would Malta have been morally correct then?
"How can we say we're morally correct on this issue and then be scandalised when a woman commits an abortion? Why are we so quick to demand that the woman raises every child she conceives even if this is a burden for her, but so silent when it comes to the lives of African immigrants? Is it because this time it is we who have to share the burden?"
The 62-year-old Dominican priest spent almost 30 years working as a parish priest in Brazil, and only came back to Malta for good last year, after a stint of six years working in the general council in Rome.
During his time travelling around Latin America he was an activist for social justice, peace and workers' rights, and despite heavy opposition, he was never afraid to fight for a just cause.
But now, as he sits in the secure surroundings of his convent in Valletta, there is fear in his eyes.
"Many people advised me to avoid this interview because we are living at a time when speaking out for the weak can result in dire consequences like heated quarrels with family and friends. I've received hate mail for my views on immigration, even from fellow priests," he confesses.
Bro. Xerri says he was impressed by the fact that Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Opposition leader Joseph Muscat agreed that Malta was "ethically, legally and morally" correct not to give in and allow the immigrants safe refuge in Malta. Dr Muscat went a step further and said that even if Malta had not been technically correct, it had done the right thing.
"I was astonished, because after all my years as a priest I've never been that sure about any truth or single action of mine, not one. How is it possible that only on this issue have we managed to reach political consensus?"
The incident where 153 immigrants were left in a watery limbo as Italy and Malta argued over who should take them in moved him to tears and made him fear for his own safety and that of his soul.
Bro. Xerri was much happier last Thursday when Malta decided to take in the 66 immigrants the army had rescued even though it had been deceived by Italy. He said Malta went by the book this time, because it was dealing with the diplomatic aspect after ensuring that lives were not lost.
"It scares me when we use words like 'burden' and when we leave people stranded at sea while we try to gain political mileage. I am scared because I wonder if I could ever be seen as a burden. I've never been economically productive!"
He wonders how come the European Community agrees that people who migrate are a burden, even though communities are meant to be about integration.
"Or is this community only intended for the free movement of money and markets?" he asks.
"We cannot stop at legality. If we did, we would accept the Holocaust, the crucifixion of Christ and the atrocities in Gaza, because they were all done according to law."
Bro. Xerri adds that many people have been seriously attacked for helping or speaking out for immigrants, and to his knowledge, no one had yet been brought to justice for these acts of "terrorism".
He is not afraid to say that the political and social discourse being used towards black migrants in Malta is on the same lines as the Nazis used towards the Jews.
"It frightens me because I know I am no better than any Nazi. I too can get caught up in this way of thinking. I need to struggle not to let it happen, because if I do, I will suffer as well. As a country we will suffer greatly if we lose our humanity."
Bro. Xerri was saddened to see his country become strong with the weak rather than with the strong. He says he had never seen the government or the opposition take such forceful action on big corporations, contractors or those who committed tax fraud.
Another thing he cannot understand is why those who rejoiced the fall of the Berlin Wall are now asking for a similar wall to be built by Libya to stop immigrants from leaving. But does this mean he feels immigration is not a problem?
"Of course it is! But that does not mean we are in a national crisis. Some say we're in a crisis because there are more immigrants than there are police and soldiers. Have we gone mad? Name one country where this is not the case. We have blown things out of proportion, and we might be using this as a smokescreen for our real problems."
Bro. Xerri says the country's real problems include unemployment, worsening working conditions, tax fraud, poverty, the environment and climate change, and above all, the non-sustainable capitalist system.
He recalls that even the government has made sure never to give any hint that we are in a national or economic crisis as a result of immigration.
So how does he react to women in Safi and Kirkop who say they run to close their doors when they hear helicopters, because they fear the detained immigrants have escaped?
"Locking our doors is not something new. This is the same kind of fear parents of children who go to Paceville deal with on a weekly basis. This is a problem, like all the other problems we have. It's something we have to acknowledge and deal with. But you cannot find solutions if you are overcome by fear.
"Fear stifles our imagination. What we need to do is regain our memory. We need to remember what it was like when we were immigrants in Australia and America. We need to remember what it felt like to be called dirty, lazy and disease-ridden. We also need to remember what Europe did to Africa. We are full members of Europe now, so we share this responsibility as well as its benefits," he says.
"Europe went to Africa to exploit it, and we called it discovery, civilisation and democratisation. Now the migrants are coming here to beg for work, and we call it an invasion. It hurts me especially when I hear young people speaking the way they do about foreigners. I keep wondering, where did we go so wrong?"
Bro. Xerri pauses and comes to a realisation that makes his body quiver, his voice tremble, and his bloodshot eyes well up with tears.
"One day we will look back, and as we did with the Nazis, we will ask ourselves: how did we let this happen?"
What hurts him most is that as soon as someone expresses solidarity with immigrants, he is labelled anti-patriotic, anti-Maltese army or even pro-immigrant.
"That does not make any sense. Immigrants are not a football team or a village band. If anything, we are pro-life.
"There are a lot of people who have been silenced but are working with the migrants. I know people who give donations on the sole condition that they can remain anonymous."
Bro. Xerri says he was very intimidated the first time he walked into an open centre, but only because he was conditioned to be afraid of immigrants because of the way everyone was talking.
Now he does not worry about having to walk through Marsa at night the way many other people seem to. He says those who are most fearful and hateful are the ones who have never spoken to an immigrant, and only go by the demonising descriptions they have read or heard.
"Some people think I am crazy because I am not afraid to go with friends to the Marsa open centre and eat with immigrants. They warn me that the immigrants want to turn Malta into a Muslim country. They do not realise that many immigrants are Christians and Catholics just like us, fleeing persecution. There is so much ignorance and misinformation. I just hope we are not too late," he says.
He adds that many Muslims also face discrimination and persecution in their own countries because of human rights violations and unjust laws and practices. Many emigrate because they long to live within a human rights framework, the kind Europe promises to uphold and urges others to follow.
So what can we do?
"We can regain our humanity. We can realise that if we're going to act this way with immigrants we have no right to take a fake moral high ground by speaking against things like abortion, homosexuality, divorce and unmarried mothers.
"We have to remember that we are in Europe now, and it's not a question of sucking out what we can, but being part of the solution. We are right to strongly demand and lobby for responsibility-sharing, but we have to understand that we can do more.
"We also need to realise that this is not the country's only problem and that we are not in a national crisis because of it.
"The only crisis we are in is a crisis of the soul. We need to remember who we are, where we came from, what our history was like, and what our true values as Maltese and Catholics are."
Bro. Xerri says Malta had a lot to learn from its own history. The Maltese have always lived in fear of being invaded or swallowed up by something larger. But the progress the country has seen since independence is testimony to the fact that solutions can be found. He recalls that it was only recently that the Maltese themselves felt they needed to leave the country to find a better life, and were encouraged to do so.
"We are under the illusion that we all left in cruise liners, and that we all became rich and successful. We need to recall and become faithful to our history, perhaps by setting up a museum about it.
He says immigration helped Malta because those who left sent money back to the island and gained invaluable expertise as a result of working abroad. He is hopeful that immigration will help Africa in a similar way.
"We need to help Africa help itself. It is not sustainable for all the able-bodied Africans to simply come to Europe. But this is a cycle. Africans living in Europe will send money back to their families, and the situation will improve in their own countries. It will take a long time, and we need to do our bit too. But eventually I believe the situation will improve."
Bro. Xerri admits that these are not his words.
"Everything I have said I have taken from someone else, people who live and work with immigrants, people coming from the Jesuit Refugee Service, Moviment Graffitti, soldiers, UNHCR, Peace Lab, Emigrants Commission and the Good Shepherd Sisters of Balzan, and so many others who have dedicated much love and energy to improving the situation and bridging the gap between our cultures.
"I have not done a shred of what they have, so this is my sincere tribute to them."
According to Bro. Xerri, the only step forward is to sit down together, control our fears, and use initiatives to understand each other, like US churches have done by organising friendly meetings between members and immigrants, legal or not. He says some schools in Malta already do this with "hopeful success", but many people are still resistant to such activities.
"I am hopeful that this problem is not beyond us. I cannot claim to have solutions because I am still grappling in the darkness of faith. All I know is that the problem cannot be solved by fear or hate. We need to use our imagination."
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