Churches champion migrants as Europe tightens laws

Paris, France - Growing legal restrictions on immigrants in Europe have prompted a rising chorus of protest from Christian churches who say they violate the rights of the newcomers in their midst.

Working together or separately, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox clerics have stepped up to defend immigrants in France, urge an amnesty for illegal immigrants in Britain and shelter asylum seekers in Belgium in recent weeks.

The Roman Catholic Church is playing a large role, as in the United States where Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney has been a vocal advocate for legalising unregistered migrants.

Church officials say this activism is not coordinated and responds to Jesus Christ's command in the Gospels to care for strangers, especially when governments want to restrict their numbers or only take in the most skilled applicants.

"There are pages of the Bible that we can't just tear out," said Bishop Georges Pontier of La Rochelle, France, referring to a verse where Jesus says "I was a stranger and you took me in."

"There's no coordination," said Austen Ivereigh, spokesman for London Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor. "This is an essential part of Catholic social teaching."

Critics of this social activism note that many immigrants are practicing Catholics -- Mexicans in the United States, for example, or Poles in Britain -- who are refilling pews left empty by decades of secularisation in the rich West.

But Christian leaders have also spoken up in countries such as France and Germany, where most immigrants are Muslims. Local Muslim leaders have welcomed their support.

Murphy-O'Connor drew cheers at a mass for over 2,000 immigrant workers at London's Westminster Cathedral on Monday when he told them: "As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, you are Londoners ... We want you to know that you belong."

Amid prayers in six foreign languages, he proposed an amnesty for illegal immigrants and said migrants should not just be seen as cheap labour.

Britain plans to introduce a points-based immigration system to limit entry to more skilled workers.

He also urged parishes to welcome their new congregants. Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, about 250,000 Poles -- many practicing Catholics -- have moved to Britain.

The Council of Christian Churches in France won several concessions in a tough new immigration bill that would cherry pick qualified workers while making family reunification more difficult and expulsion from France easier.

Catholic and Protestant leaders Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard and Pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont argued for changes in a meeting with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin last week.

Presenting the bill to the National Assembly on Tuesday, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy sounded annoyed when he revealed their pressure had led him to double the time for appeals against expulsion and agree that fired workers would not lose their residence permits.

In Belgium, asylum seekers fearing tighter regulations have been occupying churches around the country for months with the tacit and sometimes vocal approval of local bishops.

The movement gathered speed after 119 of them were given residence papers in late March after a hunger strike. About 20 churches are now being occupied, as well as one mosque.

The ecumenical Dutch Council of Churches spoke up this week for about 26,000 failed asylum seekers subject to deportation after living there for years. "Inhumane situations and reports about these are starting to appear systemic," it said.

The head of the Swiss Catholic Bishops' Conference, Bishop Amedee Grab, has agreed to debate right-wing Interior Minister Christoph Blocher before a September referendum on tightening Switzerland's already tough immigration laws.

In Germany and Italy, where immigration laws were tightened in recent years, church leaders have objected to the way new restrictions introduced last year have been applied.

In Ireland, Archbishop Sean Brady used his Saint Patrick's Day sermon on March 17 to remind the Irish that even their own national patron was "a migrant ... to our land."