Pope, Orthodox leaders listen to cries of refugees, urge help

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

MYTILENE, Greece (CNS) — Although their speeches were
punctuated with policy appeals, Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders focused their
visit to the island of Lesbos on the faces, stories and drawings of refugees.

Pope Francis, Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of
Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece spent more
time April 16 greeting the refugees individually than they did giving speeches.

The children received a pat on the head and the men a
handshake. In respect for the Muslim faith of most of the women, the leaders
put their hands over their hearts and bowed in greeting them. The gratitude of
those men, women and children was clear in their smiles, tears and sobbing
pleas for help.

An Iraqi woman asked for the assistance of the pope and
patriarch in finding medical care for her daughter with bone cancer. Another
woman kept saying, in English, “We are very tired here.” A man told
the pope that he had a brother and sister in Canada and was trying to join
them. Another man pleaded with Pope Francis, “Please, father, bless me.
Father, please, bless me.”

Pope Francis went to Lesbos expecting those stories. On the
flight from Rome, he told reporters, “This is a trip marked by sadness and
that’s important. It’s a sad trip. We are going to meet so many people who
suffer, who don’t know where to go, who were forced to flee, and we are also
going to a cemetery — the sea, where so many have drowned.”

“We are going to encounter the greatest human
catastrophe since World War II,” he said.

The pope asked reporters to make a special effort to share
with their readers and listeners “what is in my heart.”

After briefly greeting each other at Lesbos’ Mytilene
airport, the pope and Orthodox leaders rode together in a minibus to the Moria
refugee camp, a facility that a year ago was an open center when migrants and
refugees could file requests for asylum.

Today it is a locked facility surrounded by walls topped
with razor wire where some 2,500 newcomers wait out the slow process of
discovering whether their asylum requests will be accepted or they will be put
on a ferry and taken back to Turkey. Most of the refugees are from Syria, Iraq
and Afghanistan and set sail for Greece in inflatable boats from the nearby
Turkish coast.

Archbishop Ieronymos, speaking at the refugee camp, said he
hoped to never again “see children washing up on the shores of the

The Orthodox archbishop spoke with pride of the Greek people
who have opened their hearts and even their homes to the refugees, despite
years of serious economic trouble and a government almost crippled by austerity

But Archbishop Ieronymos was not so appreciative of the
European Union and the international community, which continue to pledge help
in dealing with the massive influx of refugees, but also have closed more and
more of their borders.

“Only those who see the eyes of those small children
that we met at the refugee camps will be able to immediately recognize in its
entirety the ‘bankruptcy’ of humanity and solidarity that Europe has shown
these last few years,” he said.

For Patriarch Bartholomew, the visit to the camp was
summarized as solidarity in tears.

“We have wept as we watched the Mediterranean Sea
becoming a burial ground for your loved ones,” he told the refugees.
“We have wept as we witnessed the sympathy and sensitivity of the people
of Lesbos and other islands. But we have also wept as we saw the hard-heartedness
of our fellow brothers and sisters — your fellow brothers and sisters — close
borders and turn away.”

“The world will be judged by the way it has treated
you,” said the patriarch, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox

Pope Francis told those interned at the camp that he wanted
to join the patriarch and archbishop on Lesbos first of all “simply to be
with you and to hear your stories.”

However, he also said they wanted to call the world’s
attention to the refugee crisis in the hopes “that the world will heed
these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy
of our common humanity.”

God created all people to be brothers and sisters, the pope
said. But it is so easy for many people “to ignore other people’s
suffering and even to exploit their vulnerability.”

The pope urged the refugees, “Do not lose hope!”

“The greatest gift we can offer one another is love,”
Pope Francis told the refugees. He asked them, even in the camp, to express
that love with “a merciful look, a readiness to listen and understand, a
word of encouragement, a prayer.”

He told the refugees, most of whom are Muslim, “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,” he said,
using a familiar Muslim description of God.

Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos
signed a joint declaration at the refugee camp insisting the world “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.”

The three leaders insisted that dignified care must be given
to those who felt forced to flee their homelands, but they also pleaded with
world leaders to get serious about addressing the wars, human rights violations
and extreme poverty that cause millions to leave their homelands each year.

The churches’ concern for refugees, they said in the
declaration, is not a political position but part of fulfilling the Christian
mission of service to the world.

“We urge the international community to make the protection
of human lives a priority and, at every level, to support inclusive policies
which extend to all religious communities,” they said.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter @Cindy_Wooden.

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