Pope, Bartholomeos visit Greek island to draw world’s attention at migrant crisis
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) and Fener Rum Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomeos (L) welcome Pope Francis at the airport.
Pope Francis and Fener Rum Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomeos paid a visit to the Greek island of Lesbos, which became the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis that claimed hundreds of lives in the past year, where migrants begged for the religious leaders for help.
At a sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island of Lesbos, adults and children broke down in tears, pleading for help after their onward journey to Europe was cut short by an EU decision to seal off a migrant route used by a million people fleeing conflict since early 2015.
Pope Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, shook hands with hundreds of people as hundreds more were penned behind metal barriers at the Moria camp, which holds some 3,000 people.
“Freedom, freedom,” migrants chanted as the pope walked through the hillside facility in scorching sun. Some women ululated.
“I want to tell you, you are not alone,” Francis said in a scripted speech. “... As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope!” he said, flanked by Patriarch Bartholomeos and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras also accompanied the religious leaders.
Bartholomeos described the visit as “very important,” adding that as religious leaders they had jointly prayed for peace to prevail once again in the Middle East and around the world. He said they had also tried to console the sorrows of the refugees in the camp.
“God willing, after our meeting, talks and prayers today, the political leaders of the world, whose opportunities are great and big, will reach a decision and take decisive steps in solving this very important problem. Thus, peace and tranquility will prevail once again in our region,” Bartholomeos told Doğan News Agency on April 17.
Commenting on the Turkey-EU deal reached in mid-March, Bartholomeos said he believed the deal would help decrease the demand of migrants trying to reach Europe.
“It is an important deal. Some say, ‘it is not a very successful agreement.’ But the best deal was reached under the current circumstances,” said Bartholomeos, adding that he wished for “even better deals” in the future and for the problem to be “fundamentally resolved.”
Hundreds of people have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the Lesbos shores in inflatable dinghies in the past year, and the island is full of unmarked graves.
As the three religious leaders were touring the migrant camp, adults fell to the feet of the pontiff, weeping and begging for help. One woman wearing a crucifix broke through a police cordon and flung herself at Francis’s feet.
“No camp, no camp,” the woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties, sobbed. “I want to go.”
While borders have now largely been shut for migrants, Francis symbolically took a small group of refugees with him on his aircraft as he left the island after a five-hour visit.
“The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children,” a Vatican statement said, adding that they were all Muslims.
The pope told reporters on the plane back from Lesbos that it had been the idea of one of his aides and that he had immediately agreed.
“I felt the spirit was talking to us,” he said, adding that “everything was done according to the rules,” with documents provided by Italy, the Vatican and Greece.
Asked why they were all Muslim, he said there was something wrong with the papers of a Christian family that had originally been on the list.