Some clergy criticise pontiff’s Lesbos visit as ‘provocative’.
travelled to Greece
yesterday for a brief but provocative visit to meet refugees at a detention centre.
The visit came as the EU implements a controversial plan to deport refugees back to Turkey.
Francis and the Orthodox archbishop of Athens spent nearly an hour greeting about 250 refugees stuck on the Greek island of Lesbos. They were to lunch with eight of them to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe
. After praying together they were to toss a wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn’t make it.
The visit is meant to highlight the plight of refugees, thank the Greek people who have welcomed them in, and to show a united Christian response to the humanitarian crisis.
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were brought to the main port of Mytilene.
The wreath-tossing ceremony is a gesture Francis first made when he visited the Italian island of Lampedusa in the summer of 2013, his first trip outside Rome as pope, after a dozen migrants died trying to reach the southern tip of Europe. He made a similar gesture more recently at the US-Mexican border, laying flowers next to a large crucifix at the Ciudad Juarez border crossing in memory of migrants who died trying to reach the US.Before the visit, municipal crews scrubbed the walls of the capital and port after graffiti reading “Papa Don’t Preach” was sprayed in black at several points on the seafront in Mytilene. A handful of senior Orthodox clergy in Greece have been highly critical of Francis’ trip, though the protests are nothing compared to the protests that greeted St John Paul II’s visit in 2001.
“He is slightly provocative,” said George Demacopoulos, chair of Orthodox Christian studies at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York. Citing Francis’ Mexico border visit in February, in the heat of a US presidential campaign in which illegal immigration took centre stage, he added: “He is within his purview to do so, but that was a provocative move.”
The Vatican insists this visit is purely humanitarian and religious, not political or a “direct” criticism of the EU plan.
But spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi told reporters that Francis’ position on Europe’s “moral obligation” to welcome refugees is well-known, and that the EU-Turkey deportation deal certainly has “consequences on the situation of the people involved”.
The Vatican official in charge of migrants, Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, was even more explicit, saying the EU-Turkey plan essentially treats migrants as merchandise that can be traded back and forth and doesn’t recognise their inherent dignity as human beings.
The March 18 EU-Turkey deal stipulates that anyone arriving clandestinely on Greek islands on or after March 20 will be returned to Turkey unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece.
For every Syrian sent back, the EU will take another Syrian directly from Turkey for resettlement in Europe. In return, Turkey was granted concessions including billions of euros to deal with the more than 2.7 million Syrian refugees living there, and a speeding up of its stalled accession talks with the EU.
Human rights groups have denounced the deal as an abdication of Europe’s obligations to grant protection to asylum-seekers.
The son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, Francis has made the plight of refugees, the poor and downtrodden the focus of his ministry as pope.