Just before leaving for Cuba on Saturday morning, Pope Francis met with the Syrian family of refugees he has invited to take up residence in the Vatican.
The family—comprising mother, father and two children—went to the Casa Santa Marta residence where they greeted the Pope and wished him a happy trip to Cuba and the United States.
Natives of Damascus, the land near where Saint Paul had his conversion to Christianity 2000 years ago, the family are Christians from the Greek-Melkite Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch. They fled war-torn Syria without papers, and have applied for asylum in Italy. For the last few days they have been living in an apartment near St. Peter’s Basilica, under the care of the Vatican parish of Saint Anne. They are the first of the two families of migrants who will be hosted by the Vatican parishes.
Coincidentally, the family arrived in Italy on the very Sunday when Pope Francis addressed his appeal to all parishes, convents and Catholic religious communities in Europe to take in a migrant family.
“What I asked was this,” he said, “for every parish, every religious institute and every convent to host a family. A family, not an individual. A family gives more security of containment, and helps avoid infiltrations of other sorts.”
The Pope’s appeal drew diverse reactions, with many parishes and convents responding positively and others expressing reservations.
Cardinal Peter Erdo, the archbishop of Budapest and president of the European Bishops conference, explained that “giving hospitality to migrants in transition is not possible because in Hungary hosting undocumented migrants is a criminal offense and whoever breaks this law can be charged with trafficking in persons.”
Another Hungarian bishop reacted more strongly still, saying that Pope Francis is wrong on the migrant crisis and the wave of Muslim migrants currently sweeping Europe actually represents an “invasion.”
Laszlo Kiss-Rigo, Bishop of Szeged-Csanad in southern Hungary, said the migrants “come here with cries of ‘Allahu Akbar.’ They want to take over.” He added that Pope Francis “doesn’t know the situation” and that many so-called refugees are actually economic migrants.
The Vatican expects its second family of migrants to arrive soon.
Under Italian law, for the first six months after submission of the request for asylum applicants are not permitted to work.
Italy has not yet decided whether or not to recognize the Syrian family’s refugee status, and the Vatican is keeping their identity private.
The Vatican has also requested that journalists and “paparazzi” not hound the family for pictures and interviews, but that their privacy be respected.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome