Pope returns with 12 refugees after visit to Lesvos island
While borders have now largely been shut for migrants, Francis symbolically took a small group of refugees with him on his aircraft as he left the island after a five-hour visit.
“The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children,” a statement issued by the Vatican said.
The individuals were selected from lots drawn, media reports said. They had arrived on Lesvos before a deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect to halt the migrant flow on March 20 and were staying at a different, open camp on the island. Sant’Egidio, a Christian community which offers help for those in need and is headquartered in Rome, will be looking after the families.
“It’s one way to show the entire world that we should accept refugees,” Petros Vasiliadis, a Greek biblical scholar and retired theology professor said of the pontiff’s gesture. “It may motivate other churches to do the same.”
Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, shook hands with hundreds of people as hundreds more were penned behind metal barriers at the Moria camp, which holds some 3,000 people.
“Freedom, freedom,” migrants chanted as the pope walked through the hillside facility in scorching sun. Some women ululated. “I want to tell you, you are not alone,” Francis said in a speech at the camp.
“As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope!” he said, flanked by Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Greek Archbishop Ieronymos.
On at least three occasions, adults fell to the feet of the pontiff, weeping and begging for help. One woman wearing a crucifix broke through a police cordon and flung herself at Francis’s feet. “No camp, no camp,” sobbed the woman, who appeared to be in her early thirties. “I want to go.”
In a tent where Francis met with migrants, a little girl with pigtails dressed in pink and white bowed at his feet. As he helped her up, she cried uncontrollably. An adult man broke down. Migrants slipped pieces of paper into his hand as Francis passed by, which he handed to an aide.
The pope has often defended refugees and urged Catholic parishes in Europe to host them. His first trip after becoming pontiff in 2013 was to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which, like Lesvos, has received thousands of refugees.
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