Pope Francis to bring 12 Syrian refugees back to Vatican from Lesbos
Pope Francis implored Europe to respond to the migrant crisis on its shores "in a way that is worthy of our common humanity" during an historic visit to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The pope visited Lesbos alongside the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians and the head of the Church of Greece to highlight the plight of refugees, thank the Greek people who have welcomed them in, and to show a united Christian response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding.
The visit came as the European Union was implementing a controversial plan to deport refugees back to Turkey.
The Vatican confirmed that 12 Syrian refugees, all of them Muslim, are travelling with the pope back to Italy from Greece.
The three families, including six children, met with Francis on the tarmac on Lesbos and boarded the plane.
In a statement, the Vatican said Francis wanted to "make a gesture of welcome" to the refugees, who were in camps on the Greek island before the agreement between the EU and Turkey to return migrants came into effect.
The Vatican will take responsibility for supporting the families. But the Catholic Sant'Egidio community will take care of getting them settled initially.
Many refugees fell to their knees and wept at Francis' feet as he and the two senior Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria detention centre on Lesbos. Others chanted "Freedom! Freedom!" as they 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.
In his remarks to them, Francis urged the refugees to 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.
Earlier in the day, the pope tweeted: "Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories and need to be treated as such."
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met the pope at the airport, with Francis thanking him for the "generosity" shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their own economic troubles, the Vatican said.
Mr 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 defenceless people from seeking a better life."
Then Francis and the two Orthodox leaders travelled to the detention to greet some 250 refugees stuck there.
They lunched with eight refugees to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe. Later they were expected to pray together, tossing a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn't make the journey.
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.
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 Vatican insisted Saturday's visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a "direct" criticism of the EU plan.
However, the Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, has said 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.