Pope returns from Greek island with dozen refugees
Pope Francis gave Europe a concrete lesson in how to welcome 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 arrive 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 the Pope's feet as he and the two Orthodox leaders approached them at the Moria refugee detention centre, 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. 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 for years has been active in providing assistance to refugees in Italy.
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.
Human rights groups have denounced the EU-Turkey deportation deal as an abdication of Europe's obligation to grant protection to asylum-seekers. 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 billions of euro to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there and promised that its stalled accession talks with the EU would speed up.
Making sure not to violate the deal, the Vatican said the 12 Syrians coming to Italy with the Pope had been in Lesbos prior to March 20, and thus were not subject to possible deportation.
During the visit, Francis 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. The declaration also called on political leaders to use all means to ensure that everyone, particularly Christians, can remain in their homelands and enjoy the "fundamental right to live in peace and security."
Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, lunched with eight of the refugees to hear their stories. They then went to the island's main port to pray together and toss a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn't make the journey - hundreds of people this year alone.
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... were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenceless 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 son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope.