The Pope told visiting pilgrims Wednesday that his upcoming visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos is meant as a gesture of “closeness and solidarity” to refugees and to all the Greek people who have been “so generous in welcoming them.”
“Next Saturday I will go to the island of Lesbos, where countless refugees have passed in recent months,” Francis told the tens of thousands gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience.
Francis announced that he would make the trip in the company of his “brothers,” Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Hieronymos, the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, “to express closeness and solidarity to refugees and to the citizens of Lesbos and all the Greek people who have been so generous in welcoming them.”
Lesbos has been dubbed “the gateway to Europe” because of the enormous number of migrants arriving weekly to its shores, en route to European countries to the north.
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 island. 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.
In his invitation letter to the Pope, Greek President Pavlopoulos underscored the difficult circumstances of the migrants stranded in Greece and stressed 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.
“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.
Last month, Pope Francis appealed 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.
In the past year, more than 1.1 million migrants entered the European Union and the critical situation has spurred 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.
At the beginning of his pontificate in 2013, Pope Francis visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, where large numbers of migrants were arriving from Libya.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 90 percent of migrants 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.
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