Pope in Lesbos – “We urge the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority”
Pope Francis’ visit with refugees and migrants in Lesbos last week was meant to show solidarity with the tens of thousands who are suffering, draw attention to their need and demonstrate a shared Christian commitment to helping them. Francis showed strong leadership at a time when political concerns overshadow the world’s attention. “The Pope’s trip to the frontlines of the European refugee crisis comes at a critical time. The continent of Europe is currently experiencing a vacuum of leadership with the politics of the crisis oftentimes overshadowing the plight of those on the move,” said Josh Kyller of Catholic Relief Services. The visit was “fundamentally humanitarian” in purpose and “rooted in Pope Francis’ concern for migrants, a concern that the Pope shares with the Greek Orthodox Church and with Patriarch Bartholomew”, according to the Vatican spokesman.
Pope Francis arrived in Lesbos on Saturday morning accompanied by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, and the deputy of the Vatican Secretariat of State, Archbishop Angelo Becciu. The Pope was received by the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop Ieronymos, and Bishop Franghiskos Papamanolis, Bishop Emeritus of Syros and president of the Greek Bishops’ Conference.
After a private meeting with the Tsipras, the Pope and the Eastern Orthodox bishops travelled by bus to Moria Refugee Camp which houses some 2,500 asylum seekers. 150 youths welcomed the three religious leaders as they entered the camp and passed through the central courtyard where refugees are registered. to a tent where they met about 250 refugees and migrants trying to enter Europe. The meeting was intended to bring courage and hope to those seeking refuge and to demonstrate their “profound concern” at the tragic situation of those who flee conflict and threats to their own survival.
The Pope and two leading Greek Orthodox leaders then signed a joint declaration in which they appealed to all Christians to follow Jesus Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew: “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me.…”
Forced migration affects millions of people and is “a crisis of humanity” which calls for solidarity, compassion, generosity and “an immediate practical commitment of resources” said the declaration: “Europe today faces one of its most serious humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War…. “World opinion cannot ignore the colossal humanitarian crisis created by the spread of violence and armed conflict, the persecution and displacement of religious and ethnic minorities, and the uprooting of families from their homes, in violation of their human dignity and their fundamental human rights and freedoms. We urge the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and, at every level, to support inclusive policies which extend to all religious communities.”
They encouraged political leaders to use every means to ensure that individuals and communities, including Christians, “remain in their homelands and enjoy the fundamental right to live in peace and security.” The declaration called for a broad international consensus to defend the rule of law and fundamental rights, to protect minorities, to develop safe resettlement procedures and to eliminate unsafe routes,including the Aegean Sea and the entire Mediterranean .
“As leaders of our respective Churches, we are one in our desire for peace and in our readiness to promote the resolution of conflicts through dialogue and reconciliation,” they said, adding “The terrible situation of all those affected by the present humanitarian crisis, including so many of our Christian brothers and sisters, calls for our constant prayer.”
After lunch with refugees, Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew, and Archbishop Ieronymos were driven to the port of Mitylene, the capital of the island, where they met with local citizens and the Catholic community. At a ceremony in memory of those migrants who lost their lives en route, each of the three religious leaders said a prayer, and a moment of silence was observed. Then each of the three leaders was given a laurel wreaths by children, which they threw into the sea. Before leaving the island after a five-hour visit, Francis had three separate private meetings at the airport with Archbishop Ieronymos, Patriarch Bartholomew, and again with the Tsipras.
With European borders now largely shut for migrants, the Pope made another symbolic gesture. It was announced just as Francis was leaving Lesbos that he was takng three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all including six children, with him on his aircraft as an act of welcome and solidarity. All of the families are Muslims whose homes had been bombed: two from Damascus and one from Deir Azzor, which is now occupied by IS. They were selected from lots drawn and according to a Vatican communique, all of the people the Pope took with him “were already in camps in Lesbos before the agreement between the European Union and Turkey.” The Vatican will take responsibility for both bringing in and maintaining the three families, though the initial hospitality will be provided by the Community of Sant’Egidio.