CWN - Pope Francis made a brief apostolic journey to the Greek island of Lesbos on April 16 and called upon the international community not to be indifferent to what he described as “the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.”
Located only a few miles from the Turkish coast, Lesbos, also known as Lesvos, has increasingly become a place to which Middle and Near East migrants and refugees have fled.
Among European nations, Greek has borne the brunt of the migration crisis. 853,650 of the one million migrants and refugees who entered Europe in 2015 did so by entering Greece, which has fewer than 11 million people. An additional 153,156 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece by sea between January 1 and April 11, according to the International Organization for Migration.
In his first remarks on the trip, the thirteenth apostolic journey outside Italy of his pontificate, Pope Francis told reporters on the plane to Lesbos that “it is a sorrowful journey.”
“We are going to experience the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War,” he said. “We are going to-- and we will see-- so many people who are suffering, who do not know where to go, who had to flee. We will also go to a cemetery: the sea, where many people have drowned.”
After arriving at the airport in Mytilene, the Pope met privately with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras before traveling by bus to the Mòria refugee camp with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens.
After visiting with refugees, each of the three spoke.
“It is with unique joy that we welcome today to Lesvos the Head of the Roman-Catholic Church, Pope Francis,” said Archbishop Ieronymos. “We consider his presence in the territory of the Church of Greece to be pivotal. Pivotal because together we bring forward before the whole world, Christian and beyond, the current tragedy of the refugee crisis.”
Pope Francis told the refugees:
This is the message I want to leave with you today: do not lose hope! The greatest gift we can offer one another is love: a merciful look, a readiness to listen and understand, a word of encouragement, a prayer … We Christians love to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who saw a man in need and immediately stopped to help. For us, it is a story about God’s mercy which is meant for everyone, for God is the All-Merciful.
The three prelates signed a joint declaration in which they stated that “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.”
Calling for temporary asylum for refugees, the three continued:
While acknowledging the efforts already being made to provide help and care to refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, we call upon all political leaders to employ 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 … For as long as the need exists, we urge all countries to extend temporary asylum, to offer refugee status to those who are eligible, to expand their relief efforts and to work with all men and women of good will for a prompt end to the conflicts in course.
Europe today faces one of its most serious humanitarian crises since the end of the Second World War. To meet this grave challenge, we appeal to all followers of Christ to be mindful of the Lord’s words, on which we will one day be judged: “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; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me… Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt. 25:35-36, 40).
Later in the afternoon, Pope Francis addressed the residents of Lesbos and members of the Catholic community there.
“I wish to express my admiration for the Greek people who, despite their own great difficulties, have kept open their hearts and their doors,” he said. “Many ordinary men and women have made available the little they have and shared it with those who have lost everything. God will repay this generosity, and that of other surrounding nations who from the beginning have welcomed with great openness the large numbers of people forced to migrate.”
After each of the three prelates prayed for refugees, Pope Francis met privately with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos and held a second private meeting with the prime minister before departing for Rome.
Joining the Pope on the flight were three Syrian Muslim refugee families that will be cared for by the Vatican. The Sant’Egidio Community will provide the initial care for the six adults and six children.