Pope Francis, who has made migration a defining issue of his papacy, is due to visit the Greek island of Lesbos on 16 April. Lesbos has become a centre for migrants seeking a better life in the EU and there are currently 3,560 migrants on the island.
Director of the Holy See Press office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, told journalists the invitation for the Pope to visit the island came from Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
The Vatican said the details of the day trip were still being worked out but a meeting with the refugees, a public gathering and an ecumenical encounter are likely to be included.
Pope Francis’ visit will be a strong sign of hope and solidarity for the entire ecumenical community as he will be joined by Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual head of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Ieronymos II, head of the Greek Orthodox Church. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will accompany the religious leaders said an unnamed Greek government official.
The aim of the visit which focuses on the `critical’ plight of refugees will be to encourage the refugees there and inspire “the proper response to the critical refugee situation.’ The Pope wants to persuade European leaders to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis rather than an immigration matter.
The visit comes days after migrants to Greece started being sent back to Turkey under a European Union agreement that has been criticized by the Vatican and denounced by human rights groups as impractical and legally suspect. It would be perceived as an implicit rebuke to European leaders over their refugees policy. The Vatican has made no secret that it is against the EU deal to send migrants back to Turkey from Greece. Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, who heads the pontifical council for migrants, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that the migrants concerned “are people, not goods.”
Migration is clearly a subject to which the Argentine-born Pope — the son of an Italian immigrant — wants to continue to draw attention. Pope Francis chose the island of Lampedusa south of Sicily — point of arrival for many migrants crossing the central Mediterranean — for his first trip outside Rome soon after his election in March 2013. He has also criticised presidential candidate Donald Trump over migration, saying someone like Trump “who thinks only about building walls, wherever it is, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”
He also used his traditional Easter address this year to condemn anyone who fails to help, saying migrants often meet “rejection from those who could offer them welcome and assistance”.
“It’s very clear that the Pope recognises that there is a significant emergency going on,” said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
“Just as he went to Lampedusa, which was then the frontline of the Mediterranean route, now that there is this difficult, dramatic situation on the Aegean front, he naturally wants to be present to show a sense of solidarity and responsibility.”