Refugee family swaps Syrian hell for Vatican flat

Pope Francis has made the fate of society’s weakest the dominant theme of his papacy.
Pope Francis has made the fate of society’s weakest the dominant theme of his papacy.EPA

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - A refugee family from Damascus has swapped the hell of Syria's brutal civil war for the comfort and safety of a flat in the Vatican as guests of Pope Francis.

The family of four are the first beneficiaries of the Catholic leader's determination that the Church should take a lead in shaping Europe's response to an ongoing migration crisis partly caused by the conflict in Syria.

Few details of how the Christian family of four, a couple and two children, came to land in Italy on Sept 6, were released pending the outcome of the asylum request they have lodged with the Italian authorities.

But it was confirmed Friday that they have become the first of two families that Francis has vowed to find space for in the Vatican in line with his call for every one of the 120,000 Catholic parishes across Europe to take in at least one.

The family, members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, has been housed in a flat near St Peter's cathedral, a short walk from Francis's own modest boarding house accommodation and all the charms of Rome's historic centre.

Although Damascus has been spared the worst in the Syrian conflict, it must nevertheless seem to this particular family that they have been transported to another world.

Having fled a country at war and given the uncertainty over the future for Syria's Christians, the family is highly likely to be granted leave to remain in Europe.

The processing of their application - by the Italian rather than the Vatican authorities - could, however, take months, possibly years, unless they are made a special case.

PAPAL APPEAL

In his call for the Church to take a lead on the migration issue, Francis urged local communities of believers to make a "concrete gesture" ahead of a Jubilee Year of Mercy starting in December.

He said "every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe," should take part.

"Faced with the tragedy of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers fleeing death (as) victims of war and hunger who are hoping to start a new life, the gospel calls on us and asks us to be the neighbour of the smallest and the most abandoned, to give them concrete hope," he said in a Sunday address in St Peter's square.

The Argentinian pontiff has made the fate of society's weakest, including the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving in Europe, the dominant theme of his papacy.

His call for a grassroots response to the crisis has been widely praised and he acknowledged that initiatives across Europe had inspired him, comparing them to a biblical miracle in which which Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.

"We have been healed of the deafness of selfishness and the silence of retreating into ourselves," he said.

"The closed couple, the closed family, the closed group, the closed parish, the closed country, that comes from us, it has nothing to do with God."

The fate of migrants is also expected to be a theme in the Pope's visit to the United States next week.

Since taking office in 2013, Francis has also stepped up the Vatican's support for the homeless living within its walls and across Rome, notably by having showers installed in public toilets in St Peter's Square.

And he has personally eschewed the Vatican palace and summer residence he could have occupied in favour of his modest digs.