Pope Francis to visit Greece to highlight refugee crisis

 A woman holds her child as migrants arrive in Lesbos on April 3, 2016, after a rescue at sea.
A woman holds her child as migrants arrive in Lesbos on April 3, 2016, after a rescue at sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

ATHENS (REUTERS) – Pope Francis is to visit Greece on April 14-15, a Greek government official said on Tuesday, getting a first-hand look at the front line of Europe’s migrant crisis and thousands of refugees fleeing conflict.

The Holy Synod, the ruling body of the Greek Orthodox Church, said in a statement it wanted the pontiff to visit Lesbos, the Aegean island where hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants have arrived in the past year.

Confirming the visit, a Greek government official said Francis would be accompanied to Lesbos by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians.

“The Greek government will welcome Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as valuable supporters and friends in the struggle to offer refugees some relief,” the government official said.

The Greek Church said the Pope had expressed a wish to make a visit to draw attention to conflict in the wider Mediterranean area “which has a detrimental effect on Christian communities, but also to highlight the humanitarian problem caused by desperate refugees who are seeking a better future in Europe.”

The Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said in a statement that there were contacts between religious and civil authorities but that no definitive decision had been made about the timing or venue of the trip.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing conflict have crossed into Greece by sea from Turkey in the past year, triggering the biggest humanitarian crisis in generations.

Alarmed at the influx, the European Union and Turkey jointly agreed to seal off the route last month, after Balkan states closed their borders to migrants trying to make their way to wealthy western Europe, stranding thousands in Greece.

A first group of 202 migrants, mostly Pakistani and Afghan, were shipped back to Turkey on Monday under an agreement which will see Ankara take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean to enter Greece illegally.

In return, the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with money, visa-free travel for Turks and progress in its EU membership negotiations.

The statement by the Greek Orthodox Church said a visit by the Pope would be “of a few hours duration, purely humanitarian and symbolic”.

Theological differences and historical circumstances triggered a schism in Christianity in 1054, splitting it into Western and Eastern wings.

Francis has made repeated appeals in defence of refugees, asking Europe to accept them.

Several months after his election in 2013, Francis chose the Sicilian island of Lampedusa as the venue for his first trip as pope in order to draw attention to the plight of migrants and pay tribute to thousands who died trying to make the sea crossing from North Africa.