Pope Francis has returned to Lesbos, the Greek island long at the centre of Europe’s refugee crisis, to offer comfort to asylum seekers and harsh words for a continent that has all too often rejected them.
Five years after his last visit, the pontiff admonished the west for its handling of the humanitarian crisis. Instead of welcoming people fleeing poverty and war, its indifference and cynical disregard had continued to condemn people to death, he said.
“Sisters and brothers, I am here on Lesbos to say I am near you, to look into your eyes full of fear and expectancy, eyes that have seen violence and poverty, “ the pope told a group of immigrants on Sunday. “Migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone.”
In an emblematic move seen as a defining moment for his papacy, Francis came to the island at the height of the migration drama in 2016. There he sent a message to Europe’s political elite by flying back to Rome with a group of Syrian refugees on his plane. The gesture appeared to usher in a new era of compassion and goodwill towards people seeking solace, often in the face of great adversity.
Yet Europe had failed to heed the lessons from history, the pope lamented on Sunday as he addressed people seeking asylum and officials who has gathered under a tent within view of a migration camp. In the intervening years, the Mediterranean had been allowed to become a “desolate sea of death” where smugglers’ boats packed with desperate people sank, the pope said.
“Please let us stop this shipwreck of civilisation,” he added, deploring a decision adopted by many EU countries to build walls along their borders to keep refugees out.
Turning to Greek officials, including Greece’s president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who was also in Lesbos for the visit, the pope said: “I ask every man and woman, all of us, to overcome the paralysis of fear, the indifference that kills, the cynical disregard that nonchalantly condemns to death those on the fringes,”
Francis, who turns 85 later this month, looked animated as he patted children on the head and engaged with men and women lined up around the facility.
The pope, himself the son of Italian immigrants who moved to Argentina, has made the defence of refugees a cornerstone of his eight-year papacy.
On Saturday, shortly after he arrived in Athens, he criticised Europe for the divisions it has exhibited over migration, warned against the perils of populism and expressed concern over democracy’s retreat globally.
While in Cyprus, his first stop, the pope condemned what he described as the “slavery” and “torture” often suffered by those fleeing war and poverty.
“It reminds us of the history of the last century, of the Nazis, of Stalin,” he said at a prayer service held for immigrants coalesced in Nicosia, the island’s divided capital. “And we wonder how this could have happened.”
But Francis, who arranged for the relocation of 50 asylum seekers from Cyprus to Rome, reserved his harshest language for the Greek end of his tour.
Citing Athens not only as the birthplace of democracy but where “man first became conscious of being a political animal”, he expressed fears over the disenchanted being lured by the “siren songs of authoritarianism” and warned against populists promising popular but unrealistic solutions.
Close to one million people, many fleeing war in Syria, traversed Greece between 2015 and 2016. Lesbos was by far the busiest entry point, with hundreds daily landing on its shores in dinghies and other rickety boats.