After a tearful visit to a refugee center on this Greek island Saturday and an emotional appeal to European leaders to do more to help the displaced, Pope Francis invited three families of refugees — all Muslims from Syria — to fly back with him to Rome on his plane.
Two of the families are from Damascus, and one is from an area of Syria now occupied by the Islamic State military group, according to the Vatican press office.
The 12 refugees will be cared for in Rome by the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization dedicated to charity, the Vatican said. The Vatican is already hosting two refugee families in Rome.
It was a dramatic end to a highly charged five-hour visit to Lesbos in which tears flowed as Pope Francis traveled to the epicenter of the refugee crisis and the pontiff called on European leaders to do more to help the tens of thousands of refugees stuck in this country.
“Refugees are not numbers; they are people who have faces, names stories and need to be treated as such,” Francis tweeted.
It also came as the European Union begins to implements a controversial plan to deport refugees from Greece back to Turkey.
When the pope visited the fenced Moria detention center for a meeting with a selective group of refugees, one young girl fell sobbing to her knees in front of him. The pontiff gently lifted her to her feet and stroked her hair. A woman told the pope that her husband was in Germany, but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos.
The pope made the rounds among many of the refugees, shaking hands with young people along a fence and later addressing the group.
“I want to tell you that you are not alone,” he said in prepared remarks. “In these weeks and months, you have endured much suffering in your search for a better life. Many of you felt forced to flee situations of conflict and persecution for the sake, above all, of your children, your little ones.”
He was met at the airport by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras along with Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and the Archbishop of Athens.
Francis thanked Tsipras for the “generosity” shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their economic troubles and called for a response to the migration crisis that respects European and international law, the Vatican said.
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 defenseless people from seeking a better life,” according to the Associated Press.
Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, then traveled to the main detention center on Lesbos for a five-hour visit with some 250 refugees stuck there.
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 Associated Press reports.
The wreath-tossing ceremony scheduled for later Saturday is a gesture Francis first made when he visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013, his first trip outside Rome as Pope, after a dozen migrants died trying to reach the southern tip of Europe. He made a similar gesture more recently at the U.S.-Mexican border, laying a bouquet of flowers next to a large crucifix at the Ciudad Juarez border crossing in memory of migrants who died trying to reach the U.S.
“He is slightly provocative,” said George Demacopoulos, chair of Orthodox Christian studies at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Citing Francis’ Mexico border visit in February, in the heat of a U.S. presidential campaign where illegal immigration took center stage, he added: “He is within his purview to do so, but that was a provocative move.”
The Vatican insists Saturday’s visit is purely humanitarian and religious in nature, not political or a “direct” criticism of the EU plan.
But spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters that Francis’ position on Europe’s “moral obligation” to welcome refugees is well-known, and that the EU-Turkey deportation deal certainly has “consequences on the situation of the people involved.”
The Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, was even more explicit, saying 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.
Human rights groups have denounced the deal as an abdication of Europe’s obligations to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
SOURCE: Greg Maravas and Nikolia Apostolou
Special to USA TODAY