ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (AFP) – Pope Francis, who visited the Greek migrant hotspot island of Lesbos Saturday, took three Syrian families with him on the papal plane back to the Vatican, describing the move as a “humanitarian gesture… (but) a drop in the ocean.”
Speaking to reporters on board the flight home, the pope said taking in the refugees back had been suggested by an aide a week earlier.
“Everything has been done according to the rules, with the agreement of the Greek and Italian governments,” he said. “They have their papers, and everything is in order.”
The three families were all Muslim, the Vatican said in a statement earlier.
“I didn’t make the selection. These three families had papers which were in order and it was feasible,” the pope said.
“There were two Christian families but their paperwork wasn’t ready. (Religion) was not grounds for exemption. All refugees are children of God.”
Asked about the symbolic nature of his actions, as Europe struggles to deal with its biggest migrant crisis since World War II, the Argentinian pontiff paraphrased the sainted Mother Teresa of Kolkata in reply: “It’s a drop in the ocean, but after this drop the ocean will never be the same again.”
The pope said he understood European fears over the massive number of migrant arrivals but added that “we have a great responsibility for welcoming” them.
“To build walls is not a solution,” he added. “We must build bridges but build bridges intelligently, through dialogue, through work.”
The refugee families to be taken in by the Vatican, which include six children, will be initially cared for by the community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, the Holy See said.
They originally lived in Damascus and Deir Azzor, an area currently occupied by jihadists, and have lost their homes to bombings, it said.