Pope Francis left the Greek island of Lesbos taking three families of Syrian refugees back to Rome on Saturday after he finished his visit to the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis at a camp in Greece to bring the refugee crisis into light.
The three families – constituted of 12 people, including six children — accompanied the pontiff on his flight back to Rome on Saturday, said the director of the Press Office of the Holy See.
Media reports said that the individuals were selected from lots drawn. They had arrived on Lesbos before a deal between the EU-Turkey deal came into effect.
Upon landing in Lesbos on Saturday, Francis held a brief private meeting with Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, before traveling across the island to the detention center in Moria.
At a sprawling fenced complex on the Aegean island of Lesbos, adults and children wept at the feet of the head of the Roman Catholic Church, kissed his hand, and besought help after their onward journey to Europe was cut short by an EU and Turkey deciding to detain any migrants arriving on Greek islands and return them to Turkey unless they successfully applied for asylum in Greece.
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.
Sant’Egidio, a Christian community which offers help for those in need and is headquartered in Rome, will be taking care the families.
Sant’Egidio has worked out a program with the Italian government to grant deserving refugees humanitarian visas to live in Italy while their asylum applications are being processed.
“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 held in 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.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
“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.
In a tent where the pope met with migrants, a little girl with tresses 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 Lesbos, has received thousands of refugees.
Hundreds of people have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the Lesbos shores in inflatable yachts in the past year, and the island is full of unmarked graves.
Francis and Orthodox leaders later threw wreaths into the sea to commemorate those who died. They stood silently, with heads bowed, as wreaths of yellow and white flowers bobbed over the water.
The migrant crisis has added to an already heavy burden upon Greece, which has received three international bailouts since 2010.
Francis said he admired the Greek people, saying they had “kept open their hearts and doors.”
“Many ordinary men and women have made available the little they have and shared it with those who lost everything. God will repay this generosity,” he said.
But religious leaders appeared less charitable towards the rest of Europe. A joint declaration by the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches cited a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the biblical New Testament – all will be judged by their actions.