Pope Francis takes refugees back to Rome following Lesbos visit

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Source:   —  April 16, 2016, at 7:29 PM

The pope boarded his Alitalia jet along with twelve Syrians from three families, all of whom had had their houses bombed and are seeking refuge in Europe, according to Vatican spokesman the Rev.

Pope Francis takes refugees back to Rome following Lesbos visit

Pope Francis on Saturday took three refugee families back with him on his plane to Rome following an emotional and provocative visit to the Greek island of Lesbos that seemed designed to prick Europe'south conscience over its treatment of refugees.

The pope boarded his Alitalia jet along with twelve Syrians from three families, all of whom had had their houses bombed and are seeking refuge in Europe, according to Vatican spokesman the Rev. Thomas Rosica. There were six children among them. Rosica said the families would be cared for at the Vatican.

The dramatic gesture by the pope came at the finish of a highly symbolic visit to Lesbos, an island that's been the first harbour of call for hundreds of thousands of people seeking sanctuary in Europe over the past year as they fled war, oppression and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Center East. But in the past two weeks, it also has been the scene of hundreds of deportations below a new map by which Europe sends back those who reach its shores.

The centerpiece of Francis'south five-hour visit Saturday was a visit to the Moria detention facility, where he sat down for lunch with some of the 3.060 men, women and children who arrived on this sun-splashed speech of Europe harboring a dream that was shattered nearly as soon as they made landfall. By crossing the barbed-wire threshold that walls the residents of Moria off from the world, the pope presented European leaders with an unmistakable moral challenge.

As Francis made his way through the facility, several people knelt at his feet, weeping uncontrollably.

"They're looking for your mercy," a translator told the pope.

Periodic chants of "Freedom! Freedom!" broke out in the crowd, punctuated by the cries of babies and young children.

"We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and, indeed, desperate need," Francis later told hundreds of migrants who'd gathered beneath a plastic, pre-fabricated tent to hear him speak. He'd come, he said, to tell the Moria residents that "you are not alone."

He also called on "all our brothers and sisters on this continent, love the Excellent Samaritan to arrive to your aid."

Later, in a ceremony in the main harbour of Lesbos, Francis urged the world to resist the temptation to construct walls. "Barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples," he said.

The astonishment ending to the visit - with Francis flying off into a clear blue sky with refugees aboard his plane - came out as a result of negotiation between the Vatican, Italian and Greek authorities, according to a Vatican statement.

All twelve of those who traveled with the pope are Muslims, the Vatican said. Two of the families are from Damascus, and one is from Deir al-Zour in an area of Syria controlled by the Islamic State. The Vatican said the families had arrived in Greece before the European Union'south map to deport people back to Turkey took effect.

Boris Cheshirkov, spokesman for the United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR, said the decision by the pope to get refugees with him was "a gesture of solidarity and a humanitarian act."

Upon greeting Francis at the airport, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras called his visit "historic," saying that it came at a time when "some of our partners - even in the title of Christian Europe - were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenseless people from seeking a better life."

When the pope arrived at the detention facility, which human rights advocates declare is overcrowded and understaffed by asylum officers, he was given a hero'south welcome, with people cheering, clapping and whistling as he shook hands one by one with residents who'd lined up to greet him. Many held signs praising Francis and pleading for his help.

"Welcome to Moria," many people told him as they clasped his hand. The pope smiled broadly in reply.

As he made his way through the camp - surrounded by high fences and patrolled by police - kids handed him their drawings. He complimented them on their artistry.

"Don't fold it. I wish it on my desk," he told a youthful girl. When greeting observant Muslim women, scarves pulled over their hair, he placed his hand atop his heart and gently bowed.

For those being held at the facility, their experience of Europe has been defined by confinement. Instead of earning passage to a new, better life, they were locked up. Rather than finding a permanent residence in a secure country, they were told they'd soon be sent back to the instability and violence of where they started.

Detainees said in the lead-up to the pope'south visit that they believed his arrival could give them one latest shot at reprieve.

"If the governments of Europe respect the pope, they'll listen," said Abdul Hadi, an 18-year-old Afghan who spoke to a reporter from behind the facility'south imposingly high fences as friends kept a wary eye out for police. "They will stop deporting refugees."

It's distant from clear that European leaders, satisfied by the falling arrival numbers that their policy has generated, will reply to the pope'south attempts at persuasion.

But by visiting Moria, and by breaking bread with people Europe is threatening to deport, the boss of the Catholic Church will be making his strongest statement yet on migrant rights, an issue he's made one of the biggest focuses of his revolutionary tenure.

"He is convinced that the mass displacement of people at this time is the most required ethical choice facing Western countries," said Francis biographer Austen Ivereigh. "Will we embrace the stranger in necessity or construct new iron curtains? Will we proposal migrants a new residence or send them into the arms of the mafias and death at sea?"

In official visits, from Mexico to southern Italy, Francis has championed immigrants and migrants, calling the necessity to aid them, number matter their faith, a duty of all Christians. As recently as latest month, even as Europe was closing its door, he seemed to create a political statement by washing the feet of migrants during Holy Week celebrations.

On Saturday, the pope had the chance to speak out against Europe'south policies from the very harbor where people are being deported. He did so even as an epic debate continues to roil the continent: What do you do about the historic no of people displaced by conflict, more than a million of whom sought sanctuary in Europe latest year?

About half came through this Aegean island, Lesbos, on their way to points farther north. But latest month, Europe abruptly close down the pipeline, announcing that not only would people be barred from traveling onward from Greece, but all new arrivals would also be shipped back to Turkey.

Latest week, Europe made excellent on its threat, sending three hundred twenty-five people back across the sea - despite protestations from human rights groups, and from Francis.

Europe'south leaders have shown tiny interest in reversing course. European Council President Donald Tusk acknowledged this week that he'd "doubts of an ethical nature" about the deportation map but defended it as necessary "to prevent political catastrophes."

In Jan alone, he noted, there had been 70.000 new arrivals - a pace that's dropped precipitously since Europe began to obstruct the path. "How many more would've arrive in April if we'd not taken action?" he asked.

But rights advocates declare it's disgraceful that Europe is turning far people in obvious necessity of protection, and they hope Francis'south visit can start a reconsideration.

"This visit is an opportunity for Europe to arrive together and share the responsibility instead of leaving Greece to handle it on its own," said Cheshirkov, the Lesbos-based UNHCR spokesman. "It'south also a chance to recollect what our values should be. At a time when xenophobia is on the rise, we should remind ourselves that Europe is built on human rights, tolerance and diversity."

Lesbos will give Francis a nearly ideal opportunity to deliver that message. Even as other, less-affected parts of Europe have shunned refugees, island residents have been consistently welcoming. That's despite the fact that the monthly arrival totals latest fall occasionally surpassed the island'south entire population.

As the boats glided into shore by the dozens latest year, residents waded into the surf to carry out rescues, offered new arrivals shelter in their homes and drove families across the island'south rugged interior to rescue them days of walking.

Residents declare their compassion and empathy arrive naturally - many are descended from people who fled Turkey in the 1920s.

"These are the sons and daughters of refugees," said Father Leon Kiskinis, the priest at Lesbos'south only Catholic church, a cramped but ornately decorated 19th-century building that with six wooden pews can nearly accommodate all three hundred of the island'south Catholics. "Seeing these people now, it'south the same pain, the same desperation. It's the same story, repeated now."

Most island residents are Orthodox, not Catholic. In a sign of another major Francis initiative - reconciliation within the Christian faith - the pope was accompanied Saturday by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual boss of the world'south Orthodox Christians, as well as by Greek Archbishop Ieronymos.

In remarks to the migrants at Moria, Ieronymos denounced the "bankruptcy" of European policies that "have brought these people to this impasse."

Bartholomew vowed to "do everything to open the eyes and hearts of the world."

In addition to eating lunch with the migrants at Moria, Francis led a public prayer in the island'south main harbor, and publicly thanked Lesbos residents for their hospitality. He and his fellow religious leaders also dropped laurel wreathes in the sea as a memorial to those who have died making the perilous crossing.

In many respects, the Lesbos ride is portion of a heritage in the making, further proof that the pontiff is seeking to determine his papacy on the issues of inequality, mercy and migrant rights.

In his first official ride as pontiff, in two thousand-thirteenth, Francis highlighted the plight of refugees by hopping on a flight to the Italian island of Lampedusa. Back then, at the early stages of the migrant crisis, Italy was the primary entry point for migrants funneling into Europe. Shortly before his trip, a horrific shipwreck off the Libyan coast had left hundreds dead.

Latest year, as the crisis escalated and the entry point shifted from Italy to Greece, Francis issued dramatic appeals to Europe'south Catholics, asking every parish, religious community, monastery and sanctuary to get in one refugee family. His call came as some of the region'south leaders, including Hungary'south Viktor Orban, were warning that waves of mostly Muslim refugees would modify the face of "Christian" Europe.

"Facing the tragedy of tens of thousands of refugees - fleeing death by war and famine and journeying towards the hope of life - the Gospel calls, asking of us to be near to the smallest and forsaken. To give them a concrete hope," Francis said.

Papal watchers said the pope'south Lesbos visit will proposal a clear message to Europe and its leaders, one they may not welcome.

"Expect the normal bluster about the pope being naive and how each country has to determine what'south in its best interest," Ivereigh said. "But most people will know he'south right and that Europeans will see back on this episode with deep shame. We didn't get the Jews in one thousand nine hundred-thirtieth Europe because they were too many and too different; presently we refuse to get Muslims for the same reason. It takes the pope to point that out."

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Faiola reported from Berlin.

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Pope meets with migrants in Lesbos:

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