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Indiana Archbishop welcomes Syrian family, defies governor's refugee ban

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Peter Morrison/ AP

(Read caption) A man joins a counter-protest against an anti-refugee demonstration in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on December 5. Religious organizations have spoken out against US states' reluctance to accept Syrian refugees.

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In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, as governors and lawmakers around the United States have waged a battle to block Syrian refugees from entering the country, religious groups from the Episcopal Church to the Jewish Orthodox Union have spoken out in favor President Barack Obama's proposal to welcome Syrians to the US. 

And in Indianapolis, Ind., the Catholic Archdiocese has gone one step further, hosting a Syrian family of four over the express wishes of state Gov. Mike Pence, who asked Archbishop Joseph Tobin not to pay for the family's resettlement after Mr. Pence ordered state agencies to block federal funding for Syrian refugees.

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"The family arrived safely in Indianapolis last night," Tobin wrote in a church statement Tuesday morning, saying that he had "prayerfully considered" the governor's request. "For 40 years the Archdiocese's Refugee and Immigrant Services has welcomed people fleeing violence in various regions of the world. This is an essential part of our identity as Catholic Christians and we will continue this life-saving tradition."

Pence opposes resettling Syrian refugees under the current system, which many Americans worry is insufficient to identify potential security threats, even though the process takes an average of two years. More than 30 states have opposed Mr. Obama's calls to welcome at least 10,000 Syrians, a tiny fraction of the migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe. This past Friday, Texas backed off efforts to block Syrian refugees, and a family arrived there Tuesday.

"There are significant gaps in our ability to know precisely what we need to know about everyone coming into this country," Pence asserted on Dec. 2, after spending an hour in a meeting with the Archbishop.

The White House maintains that states do not have the right to block refugees' federal funding. But regardless of the political debacle, the Indianapolis Archdiocese's Refugee and Immigrant Services Program says it can provide for the family of four, who left Syria three years ago, thanks to private donations. Previously, however, another Syrian family was turned away from Indiana; they are now in Connecticut, according to Indiana's WISH. 

The latest case caught the attention of Christian social justice organization Faithful in Action, whose online petition to bring the family in-state garnered more than 16,000 signatures. 

But just over half of Americans oppose admitting Syrians, at least for the time being: one week after the Paris attacks, an ABC News-Washington Post poll showed that 54 percent did not want to allow immigration from the Middle East. 

While many liberal politicians and human rights groups have spent the fall wringing their hands over anti-refugee sentiment, and the escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric that often accompanies it, religious groups have also stepped up their efforts to voice support for migrants they say are more likely war victims than threats to US security.

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On Nov. 17, 81 organizations sent a letter to Congress, arguing that a moratorium on refugees "would jeopardize the United States' moral leadership in the world":

Syrian refugees are fleeing exactly the kind of terror that unfolded on the streets of Paris. They have suffered violence just like this for almost five years. ...To turn our back on refugees would be to betray our nation's core values. It would send a demoralizing and dangerous message to the world that the United States makes judgments about people based on the country they come from and their religion. This feeds into extremist propaganda and makes us all less safe.

Signatories included more than 20 religious groups, ranging from the Jesuit Conference and Council of Jewish Women to the Presbyterian Church and Council on American-Islamic Relations. 

For many, religious values of charity compel them to offer help. But some Christians, in particular, point to Jesus' birth and message as a lesson in compassion. "Jesus himself was a refugee, and he teaches us to do unto others as we would have them do to us," the Evangelical Immigration Table wrote to Congress on December 2. 

After calling for every Catholic parish in Europe to take in refugees, a hard sell in many parts of the continent, Pope Francis welcomed a Syrian family to live in Vatican City. 

It's an example inspiring not only Catholics, but perhaps Obama himself, who referenced the Pope's September speech to Congress when justifying his resettlement policy to reporters in Turkey.  

"Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War," Francis said in his bicameral address:

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation....In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.