This morning’s Guardian newspaper reports that Pope Francis will today spend five hours on Greek the island of Lesbos with Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and with Ieronymos II, archbishop of Athens and all Greece.
His visit is described as “a dramatic rebuke to the European Union’s policy of sending arriving migrants back to Turkey”.
This morning, the pontiff tweeted that “Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories, and need to be treated as such”.
The BBC have extended coverage of the church leaders’ visit.
An representative of Greece’s state refugee coordination agency explained that Pope Francis wanted to offer three vulnerable families refuge in the Vatican.
Pope Francis has taken 12 Syrian migrants back with him to the Vatican after visiting a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The three families, including six children, are all Muslim and had their homes bombed during the Syrian war. The Vatican said in a statement that Pope Francis wanted to “make a gesture of welcome” to the refugees … All of those leaving with the Pope were already living on Lesbos before the deal was implemented, the Vatican said.
The Observer’s editorial comments that the visit to Lesbos “was an extraordinary piece of political theatre”.
Not since John Paul II kissed the soil of his native Poland when he disembarked from a plane on his first visit as pope has there been a gesture so eloquent as Pope Francis taking three Muslim families back to the Vatican for refuge.
When he was asked why there were no Christians, he replied that the Christian families that had been considered did not have their paperwork in order. Apart from the paperwork, the only criterion, he said, was that the refugees should be children of God.
This is a direct and radical challenge to almost all the European countries’ reponses to the migration crisis. For Francis, the problem is suffering, and the immediate duty of a Christian, or of any human being, is to relieve it. This is something that most of the countries of Europe no longer appear to believe.
Within Europe, Greece is the border country that has witnessed the arrival of the most refugees over the last year “with over 850,000 of the 1.1 million Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis who streamed into Europe last year, coming through Lesbos”.
The pontiff, who has publicly criticised Europe’s “anaesthetised conscience” on refugees, will go straight to the detention centre above the hilltop village of Moria where more than 3,000 men, women and children are held. The island has become a focal point for the European refugee crisis following the influx of refugees in recent months. EU leaders agreed last month to begin deporting arriving migrants to Turkey in a bid to stop the flow of people into the continent.
The Guardian report adds:
Before the church leaders’ visit, authorities had gone out of their way to clean up the camp, whitewashing graffiti-splattered walls, replacing tents with containers, installing air conditioning and taking families out of the overcrowded facility to an open-air holding centre nearby.
There’s an underlying ecumenical significance to the Catholic and Orthodox meeting in Greece.
Imbued with added urgency on the frontline of the EU’s migrant emergency, the meeting is also being seen as a further warming of ties between the western and eastern branches of Christianity, almost 10 centuries after their bitter split in 1054.