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Pope Francis Plans Imminent Trip to Greek Island to Showcase Migrant Problem

Within the coming week Pope Francis will visit the Greek island of Lesbos, which has been dubbed “the gateway to Europe” because of the staggering number of migrants arriving to its shores, to draw attention to the plight of migrants trying to enter Europe.

Commenting on the visit, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s newspaper, underscored the “increasingly precarious living conditions for thousands of refugees and migrants” who have reached the Greek island of Lesbos. The paper said that with his visit, Pope Francis would “offer a Christian response to the tragedy that is unfolding” in Greece, just as he has “pierced the veil of indifference” surrounding the migrants in recent weeks.

Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos issued a formal invitation to the Pope to visit Lesbos on Tuesday, but the initiative for the trip came from the Pope himself. Francis reportedly made overtures to the religious authorities in Greece, and officials of the Greek Orthodox Church replied that he should visit the island of Lesbos where hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived by boat over the past year.

Though still not officially confirming the report, the Vatican has given clear indications of its trustworthiness. The papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, admitted that “discussions are under way, though nothing is definite yet,” and added that “the Greek sources [announcing the trip] are authoritative.”

Greek news sources have said that the Pope will visit Lesbos on April 14 and 15, together with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Athens. The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is also slated to accompany the Pope on his visit.

In his invitation letter to the Pope, President Pavlopoulos underscored the difficult circumstances of the migrants stranded in Greece and emphasized the need to raise awareness on the issue in other European countries.

“I am convinced that Your presence on the side of refugees, will not only console them, but will also turn everyone’s attention to their dramatic situation, touching the hearts of people around the world,” the President said.

“With this thought, I wish to invite You to visit one of the first entry points of refugees at the island of Lesvos, and be next to our fellow human beings who are suffering, along with the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece,” he added.

“Your visit in Lesvos will strengthen significantly the efforts to raise awareness for the refugee drama and highlight the humanist principles of our common European civilization,” the letter concludes.

Several weeks ago, Pope Francis launched an appeal to the nations of the world to open their hearts and their doors to migrants who are standing “at the border,” in an apparent reference to the many migrants camped at key border positions trying to enter Europe.

During the last year, more than 1.1 million migrants entered the European Union and the unabated flow has prompted countries along the main migration corridor through the Balkans to seal their borders, leaving tens of thousands encamped in Greece.

“How many of our brothers and sisters are living in this time a real and dramatic situation of exile,” Francis said, “far from their homeland, still in their eyes the reflection of their homes reduced to rubble, their hearts full of fear and often, unfortunately, sorrow at the loss of loved ones!”

“And when they try to go somewhere else, they find the door closed to them,” Francis continued, “There they are, at the border, because so many doors and so many hearts are closed. Today’s migrants suffer from the cold, without food and with no way to enter. They do not feel welcome.”

“How it pleases me to hear of nations and rulers who open their hearts and open their doors!” he said.

The number of migrants traveling from Turkey to Greece in recent months has been astronomical. In January 2016 alone, more than 67,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Greece, representing almost 40 times the number in the same period of 2015.

According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 90 percent of those arriving to Greece by sea come from the countries of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Most arrive on the small island of Lesbos, while others make for the Greek islands of Chios, Samos, Agathonisi, Leros, Kos, and Rhodes.

With its 630 square miles and a population of over 90 thousand inhabitants, Lesbos is the third largest Greek island and the eighth largest island in the Mediterranean. Because of its geographical position, it has been the preferred arrival point for Syrian refugees and others from the Middle East wishing to travel to Europe.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter  

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