Pope brings 12 Syrian refugees to Italy in lesson for Europe – “An important initiative at a crucial time”, PM Tsipras says – Archbishop Ieronymos co-signed joint declaration
MORIA, Lesvos (AP, ANA-MPE) — Pope Francis gave Europe a concrete lesson Saturday in welcoming refugees by bringing 12 Syrian Muslims to Italy aboard his charter plane after an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which has faced the brunt of Europe’s migration crisis. Refugees on the overwhelmed island fell to their knees and wept at his presence.
The Vatican said Francis wanted to make a “gesture of welcome” at the end of his five-hour visit to Lesbos, where he implored Europe to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores “in a way that is worthy of our common humanity.” The Greek island just a few miles from the Turkish coast has seen hundreds of thousands of desperate people land on its beaches and rocks in the last year, fleeing war and poverty at home.
“Today I renew my heartfelt plea for responsibility and solidarity in the face of this tragic situation,” Francis said.
The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece to thank the Greek people for their welcome and highlight the plight of refugees as the European Union implements a controversial plan to deport them back to Turkey.
Many refugees wept at Francis’ feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention center, where they greeted 250 people individually. Others chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” as the religious leaders passed by.
Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet, sobbing uncontrollably. Clearly moved, the pope also blessed a man who wailed “Thank you, God. Thank you! Please Father, bless me!” A woman told Francis that her husband was in Germany but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos.
The Vatican said the three Syrian families, including six children, who were taken back with the pope will be supported by the Holy See and cared for initially by Italy’s Catholic Sant’Egidio Community, which has been active in providing assistance to refugees.
Two of the families hail from Damascus and the third from Deir el-Zour, a city close to the Iraqi border that the Islamic State group has been besieging for months, leading to malnutrition among 200,000 people living in the area.
“Their homes had been bombed,” the Vatican said of the three families.
At a ceremony in the port of Lesbos to thank Greeks, Francis said he understood Europe’s concern about the recent migrant influx. But he said migrants are first of all human beings “who have faces, names and individual stories” and deserve to have their most basic human rights respected.
“God will repay this generosity,” he promised.
In his remarks to the refugees, Francis said they should know that they are not alone and shouldn’t lose hope. He said he wanted to visit them to hear their stories and to bring the world’s attention to their plight.
“We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity,” he said. “May all our brothers and sisters on this continent, like the Good Samaritan, come to your aid in the spirit of fraternity, solidarity and respect for human dignity that has distinguished its long history.”
Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe’s obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
During the visit, Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and the archbishop of Athens, Ieronymos II, signed a joint declaration calling on the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and to extend temporary asylum to those in need.
Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew and Greece’s Archbishop Ieronymos wrapped up their visit to the Moria hotspot on the island of Lesvos on Saturday by sharing a meal with three refugee families at the centre.
After making their speeches, meeting with refugees and signing a joint declaration, the leader of the Catholic Church, the spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece joined in the camp’s regular meal of rice and vegetables, olives, bread and halva.
They had earlier appealed for the protection of minorities and action against the trafficking in people, as well as the eradication of unsafe routes for people fleeing violence, such as the boat crossings in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, and their replacement by safe relocation and resettlement processes.
All three expressed their solidarity toward the people of Greece, noting that they had responded to the crisis with generosity, despite facing their own, serious economic problems.
Arriving from Mytilene airport, the three Church leaders had dispensed with both protocol and the stiff security measures, mingling freely with the refugees at the Moria hotspot, now a closed detention centre following the deal struck by the EU and Turkey on March 20. Pope Francis, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos shook hands with hundreds of unaccompanied minors, met mothers and held their small children in their arms, while weeping men and women knelt before them, asking for their blessing and their help.
The first group was made by the unaccompanied children, who came with drawings and signs that welcomed the three religious leaders but also asked to be allowed to join their families in northern Europe. Other refugees and migrants, most of whom arrived after March 20 and found themselves detained, carried signs and chanted slogans asking for ‘Freedom’.
A young refugee sobbed as he kissed the hands of the Pope and Patriarch, asking them to do something to give the refugees reason to hope.
Upon his arrival in Greece, Francis met Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the airport and thanked him for the “generosity” shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their own economic troubles.
Tsipras 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.”
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.
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras described the papal visit to the island of Lesvos as a “significant initiative at a crucial time,” during his meeting in Mytilene with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and All Greece, government sources said.
In a brief dialogue held on camera, the prime minister noted that the visit illustrated the universal human values of solidarity when others, in the name of Christianity, were greeting the refugees with walls, fences and violence. He noted that the initiative by the three Church leaders would send a message transcending both Greek and European borders.
“This is very important, both for Greece and for the refugee crisis,” he added and noted that Greece was currently hosting roughly 50,000 refugees and striving to create acceptable living conditions for them, in spite of the difficulties. He also pointed out that Turkey should cope with close to two million and “the important thing is to give a message of peace; this war must stop, we must think about what these people are fleeing in order to go through this ordeal.”
“If the war does not end, the waves of refugees will continue,” Patriarch Bartholomew agreed, expressing his support for a proposal to nominate the islanders on Lesvos for a Nobel peace prize.
“We know that you have come from areas of war, hunger and suffering. We know that your hearts are full of anxiety about your families. We know that you are looking for a safer and brighter future.
We have wept as we watched the Mediterranean Sea becoming a burial ground for your loved ones. We have wept as we witnessed the sympathy and sensitivity of the people of Lesvos and other islands. But we also wept as we saw the hard-heartedness of our fellow brothers and sisters – your fellow brothers and sisters – close borders and turn away.
Those who are afraid of you have not looked at you in the eyes. Those who are afraid of you do not see your faces. Those who are afraid of you do not see your children.
They forget that dignity and freedom transcend fear and division. They forget that migration is not an issue for the Middle East and Northern Africa, for Europe and Greece. It is an issue for the world.
The world will be judged by the way it has treated you. And we will all be accountable for the way we respond to the crisis and conflict in the regions that you come from.
The Mediterranean Sea should not be a tomb. It is a place of life, a crossroad of cultures and civilizations, a place of exchange and dialogue. In order to rediscover its original vocation, the Mare Nostrum, and more specifically the Aegean Sea, where we gather today, must become a sea of peace. We pray that the conflicts in the Middle East, which lie at the root of the migrant crisis, will quickly cease and that peace will be restored. We pray for all the people of this region. We would particularly like to highlight the dramatic situation of Christians in the Middle East, as well as the other ethnic and religious minorities in the region, who need urgent action if we do not want to see them disappear.
We promise that we shall never forget you. We shall never stop speaking for you. And we assure you that we will do everything to open the eyes and hearts of the world.”