MORIA, Greece (AP) — Pope Francis made an emotional visit to Greece on Saturday to thank its people for welcoming migrants and meet with refugees as the European Union implements a controversial plan to deport them back to Turkey.
Greek state television ERT reported that Francis had offered to take 10 refugees — eight Syrians and two Afghans — back with him when he leaves. Asked about the report, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi told The Associated Press: “I have nothing to say at this time.”
Asked if he would have an update later, Lombardi said: “Each moment has its significance.”
The Vatican is already hosting two refugee families, so the gesture would be in keeping with Francis’ call for Europe to open its hearts and borders to those most in need.
Many refugees fell to their knees and wept as Francis approached them at the Moria detention center on the Greek island of Lesbos. Others chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” as he passed by. Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet sobbing uncontrollably. A woman told the pope that her husband was in Germany, but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos.
“Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names stories and need to be treated as such,” Francis tweeted.
Francis’ Alitalia charter touched down at the airport in Lesbos shortly after 10 a.m. Saturday. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met him on the tarmac, along with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the archbishop of Athens, who is the head of the Church of Greece.
During a brief meeting at the airport, Francis thanked Tsipras for the “generosity” shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their own economic troubles and called for a response to the migration crisis that respects European and international law, the Vatican said.
Tsipras, for his part, said he was proud of Greece’s response “at a time when some of our partners — even in the name of Christian Europe — were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenseless people from seeking a better life.”
Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, then traveled to the main detention center on Lesbos to greet some 250 refugees stuck there.
The religious leaders will lunch with eight refugees to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe. And then they will pray together, tossing a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn’t make it.
The five-hour visit is meant to show a united Christian response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding.
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained and brought to shore in the main port of Mytilene.
The wreath-tossing ceremony scheduled for later Saturday is a gesture Francis first made when he visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013, his first trip outside Rome as pope, after a dozen migrants died trying to reach the southern tip of Europe. He made a similar gesture more recently at the U.S.-Mexican border, laying a bouquet of flowers next to a large crucifix at the Ciudad Juarez border crossing in memory of migrants who died trying to reach the U.S.
“He is slightly provocative,” said George Demacopoulos, chair of Orthodox Christian studies at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Citing Francis’ Mexico border visit in February, in the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign where illegal immigration took center stage, he added: “He is within his purview to do so, but that was a provocative move.”
The Vatican insists Saturday’s visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a “direct” criticism of the EU plan.
But spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that Francis’ position on Europe’s “moral obligation” to welcome refugees is well-known, and that the EU-Turkey deportation deal certainly has “consequences on the situation of the people involved.”
The Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, was even more explicit, saying the EU-Turkey plan essentially treats migrants as merchandise that can be traded back and forth and doesn’t recognize their inherent dignity as human beings.
The March 18 deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted concessions including billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there, and a speeding up of its stalled accession talks with the EU.
Human rights groups have denounced the deal as an abdication of Europe’s obligations to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope, denouncing the “globalization of indifference” that the world shows the less fortunate.
The trip also has a significant religious dimension.
Lombardi said the ecumenical significance of a meeting between Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the head of the Church of Greece, Athens Archbishop Ieronymos II was “obvious.” He credited Greece’s politicians with their willingness to let the religious leaders take center stage as an “appreciated” gesture of discretion.
Winfield reported from Rome.
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