Pope Francis visits frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis
Pope Francis arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday, turning the world’s attention to the frontline of Europe’s migrant crisis which has claimed hundreds of lives in the past year.
Francis, leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, was scheduled to spend about six hours on the small Aegean island. Based on his schedule, he was to meet 250 refugees and have lunch with eight of them.
Hundreds of people have died making the short but precarious crossing from Turkey to the Lesbos shores in inflatable dinghies in the past year, and the island is full of unmarked graves.
“This is a trip that is a bit different than the others. On the apostolic trips we do many things, we see people, speak. There is joy in the meeting. This is a trip marked by sadness. This is important. It is a sad trip. We are going to encounter the worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War Two. We will see many people who are suffering, who don’t know where to go, who had to flee. We are also going to a cemetery, the sea. Many people have drowned. I say this is not to be bitter, but so that your work today may express the feelings with which I am undertaking this journey,” Francis told reporters on the plane bound for Lesbos.
With Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, Francis will visit Moria, a sprawling, fenced complex holding more than 3,000 refugees.
Greek state TV reported Francis was planning to take ten refugees back with him to the Vatican, eight of them Syrians.
Aid organisations have described conditions at Moria, a disused army camp, as appalling.
Journalists have no access to the facility on a hillside just outside Lesbos’s main town of Mytiline, but aid workers said walls were whitewashed, a sewer system fixed and several dozen migrants at the overcrowded facility were transferred to another camp, which the pope will not visit. .
Aid organisations say queues for food are long, and people often wait for an hour or more.
Saturday’s encounter with refugees would be ‘no frills’ and the religious leaders would eat the same food as everyone else at the camp, an official at the camp told Reuters.
Greek media reported that Saturday’s fare would be risotto and mushrooms and olives, and halva, a sweetbread made with sesame and honey.
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