Pope to visit Lesbos with Orthodox to highlight plight of refugees

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In an effort to highlight the
dramatic situation of refugees left in limbo on the Greek island of Lesbos,
Pope Francis and other Christian leaders will meet with the migrants April 16.

“Naturally, the pope wants to be there in order to
draw attention to the sense of solidarity and responsibility” of all
Christians, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters
April 7.

The pope wants to go to Lesbos for the same reasons that
drew him to visit the Italian island of Lampedusa: to point to “the
reality of refugees and immigrants” and because “he sees an important
emergency” unfolding there, Father Lombardi said.

The joint visit by the pope and two top Orthodox leaders in
the region also shows “that the Christian churches are united on the
frontlines of major challenges, before humanitarian emergencies, problems of
justice and peace in the world today,” Father Lombardi said.

The pope accepted invitations by Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of
Constantinople, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s
Orthodox, to make the one-day visit, the Vatican said.

The pope and patriarch will also be joined by Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos of
Athens and all of Greece when meeting with the refugees on the island.

Father Lombardi said it was still too early for further
details about the trip, but that the itinerary would be “very basic.”
It was expected the pope would be welcomed at the airport by local authorities,
he said, and in addition to the meeting with refugees, there would be a second
organized event of some kind on the island.

It will be the second time in modern history a pope
visits Greece; in 2001, St. John Paul II made a historic pilgrimage that
included Syria and Malta as he traced the evangelizing route of St. Paul.

Lesbos is just a few miles from the coast of Turkey, and
for years migrants and refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East have been arriving
on this and other nearby islands in an effort to reach Western Europe.

Approximately 172,000 migrants have crossed into Greece
and Italy since the beginning of 2016, according to the International
Organization for Migration.

A new agreement between Turkey and the European Union stipulates
that those who cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey illegally are sent back to
Turkey, with the aim of stemming the flow of migrants to Greece. The deal
states that the EU will take in thousands of Syrian refugees from Turkey and
offer the nation financial help and other assistance.

Some criticize the accord because it risks deporting asylum-seekers
and refugees rather than illegal migrants, and it may not guarantee
safeguarding human rights and living conditions of those on the move.

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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