Lesbos (Greece) (AFP) – Pope Francis received an emotional welcome Saturday on the Greek island of Lesbos during a visit aimed at showing solidarity with migrants fleeing war and poverty, a small group of whom he hopes to bring back to the Vatican.
The pontiff’s landmark visit comes amid controversy over a deal last month to end Europe’s refugee crisis by sending all irregular migrants who land in Greece back to Turkey.
At a refugee camp, where refugees knelt before the pope, one man cried “Father bless me” as the pontiff smiled and placed his hand on the man’s head.
“This is a voyage marked by sadness, a sad voyage,” the pope told reporters during the flight from Rome.
“We will witness the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. We will see so many people who are suffering, who are fleeing and do not know where to go,” he said.
“And we are also going to a cemetery, the sea. So many people never arrived,” he said.
An official from Greece’s state refugee coordination agency said Francis, who has repeatedly spoken out about the plight of the migrants risking their lives to reach Europe, wanted to take back a small number of refugees from Lesbos.
The chosen refugees are expected to be from those who arrived on Lesbos before the EU-Turkey deportation deal took effect in March, the official told AFP, without specifying whether this would take place immediately after the pope’s five-hour visit or at a later stage.
– ‘Three families Vatican-bound’ –
Greek public television ERT said three families from Kara Tepe refugee camp on Lesbos, who were chosen in a draw, would be the ones to go.
Lesbos has been the first port of call in the EU for hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers fleeing war, poverty and persecution in the Middle East and Asia across the Aegean Sea from nearby Turkey in the past year.
The influx has sparked fierce disagreements between EU members and brought the bloc’s system of open borders to the brink of collapse.
Lesbos has also become the focus of criticism of the EU’s deal with Turkey to take back migrants who travel to the Greek islands on boats operated by people smugglers, in return for billions in EU cash.
New arrivals on Lesbos are being detained while waiting to be processed to determine whether they have a legitimate claim to protection from conflicts like the war in Syria or from fear of persecution.
Pope Francis, who was accompanied by Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visited the Moria processing centre, which is currently housing around 3,000 people.
The religious leaders were to later issue a joint declaration on the refugees plight, and hold a prayer at Lesbos harbour in memory of the hundreds of migrants who have drowned in the Aegean.
They were also to have lunch with a small group of asylum-seekers followed by a larger meeting with around 250 migrants and brief discussions with Greek coastguards and local residents.
Tsipras told the pope his visit “is a very important opportunity to highlight the need to stop the war (in Syria), the exploitation of people, and to provide the opportunity for a legal route for these people leaving their homes, seeking a better future in Europe.”
Migrant flows to Greece have drastically fallen since the EU-Turkey agreement took effect.
The number of deaths in the perilous crossing have also been cut — though not entirely eliminated.
Francis has framed his visit as an awareness-raising exercise and his spokesman insisted this week that its purpose was “strictly humanitarian and ecumenical, not political”.
– ‘Show solidarity’ –
Francis himself said the goal of his trip was “to show closeness and solidarity with the refugees as well as the citizens of Lesbos and to all the Greek people who have been so generous in their welcome”.
The use of the term ‘refugee’ was not accidental. The former Jesuit priest has repeatedly said he does not accept the EU’s distinction between those fleeing conflict and those fleeing poverty and starvation created by global economic inequalities.
That line has been backed by Bartholomew, the Turkey-based leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, who said Europe as a whole must display the same generosity as the people of Lesbos.
On a 2013 visit to Lampedusa, the Italian island which has witnessed several deadly sinkings of migrant boats off its shores, the pope made one of the defining speeches of his papacy, denouncing the “globalisation of indifference” which has allowed thousands to perish at sea.
Over one million people crossed clandestinely from Turkey to Greece in 2015 and some 150,000 have made the trip since the start of this year.