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Cardinal O’Malley decries calls to bar Syrian refugees

Cardinal Sean O’Malley
Cardinal Sean O’MalleyJonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley on Thursday urged a humanitarian welcome for Syrian refugees who have been “set adrift in a chaotic world,” in contrast with Governor Charlie Baker and some other elected officials who have called for a halt on resettlement.

O’Malley did not name Baker or more than two dozen other governors who responded to terrorist attacks in Paris by speaking out against accepting Syrian refugees but said such statements “lack the balance and humanitarian perspective needed at this time.”

“Public officials face very difficult challenges in an obviously dangerous world today,” O’Malley said in a statement, while traveling in Rome. But the “barbaric attacks in Paris, which demand a strong response and require policies that as best possible prevent recurrence, should not be used to efface the memory of Syrians and others from the Middle East and Africa who are desperately in need of shelter, support, and safety.”

As Greater Boston’s Roman Catholic archbishop, O’Malley brings the region’s most prominent religious voice to a wide-ranging group of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders who have responded this week by calling for the country to welcome Syrian refugees, citing American and religious ideals.

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O’Malley, who has worked closely with immigrant groups during his decades of ministry, pledged the support of Catholic Charities for “a national policy on immigration based on humanitarian need regardless of place of origin.”

His statement came as the House of Representatives voted on legislation to pause President Obama’s plan to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees.

The congressional push aims to impose even more stringent screening than refugees already receive.

O’Malley’s pronouncement also came amid increasingly heated rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates.

On Monday, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said the nation should not accept even young orphans right now; on Thursday, Ben Carson likened refugees fleeing Syria to “rabid dogs” that would put the country at risk.

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Baker has taken a more measured tone (“I would say no as of right now”) while saying he needs greater assurance about security.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Thursday that Baker supports the ideals espoused by the cardinal but wants a fuller discussion of the safeguards in the refugee-screening program.

“Governor Baker agrees with the cardinal’s poignant message that Massachusetts has a role in welcoming individuals into the Commonwealth and is working to ensure the public’s safety in the wake of the recent, terrible tragedies despite the limited role states play in the process,” press secretary Lizzy Guyton said by e-mail.

O’Malley’s more robust call for welcoming refugees came as Baker also received a letter from the Massachusetts Council of Churches asking him to reconsider his position.

“Refugees do not bring terror, they are fleeing from it,” eight bishops and ministers wrote, representing several denominations. “We must make sure that we do not allow fear to overwhelm us, crowd our compassion, or fundamentally change our character.”

The Rev. Laura Everett, a United Church of Christ minister who is executive director of the state churches’ council, said she has heard from many pastors dismayed by political opposition to Syrian refugee resettlement, citing “not just Christian values but deeply held American values.”

“We believe in a Massachusetts that is brave and welcoming,” she said, adding that the “foundational story” of Christianity itself “is of a Middle Eastern family wandering, looking for safe refuge.”

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Tiziana Dearing, a Boston College professor and former Catholic Charities president, said she did not consider O’Malley’s statement a rebuttal to the governor but instead a response to the wider “public climate of fear” swirling around the issue.

“My first reaction, no pun intended, was, really, thank God,” Dearing said. “The humanitarian perspective absolutely cannot be sacrificed in times of conflict.”

Dearing said protecting noncombatants is deeply rooted in religious and moral ethics, and that refugees, who must already complete a long, rigorous application process to win acceptance to the United States, are caught up in a political debate.

“These are people who are forced out of their homes, who have nothing, who are hungry and desperate and just asking to be safe,” she said. “Leaders have to be cautious, but we need an informed caution.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, along with the Jewish social service and refugee-resettlement nonprofit JVS, also issued a statement Thursday calling “for action motivated by freedom and tolerance, rather than hatred and fear.”

“It bears reiterating that the American promise of safe harbor for political, social, or religious refugees is a principle as old as our Republic and should not be a political football,” the Jewish organizations said.

They added that they were guided “by our own history as refugees as well as our shared biblical and prophetic mandate to protect and welcome the stranger.”

The executive director of New England’s largest mosque said he was grateful for O’Malley’s words and those from officials such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, who Thursday sent an e-mail urging supporters to join her in embracing Middle Eastern refugees and rejecting calls to turn them away.

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“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which serves 1,300 congregants. “That’s part of our deep history and values as a nation, and to not stick to those values I feel is really straying away from who we are.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at eric.moskowitz@globe.com.