Pope Francis has used a trip to Greece to hit out at Europe for the divisions it has exhibited over migration while warning against the perils of populism.
Greece has long been on the frontline of the refugee crisis.
In Athens, on the second leg of a Mediterranean tour that has highlighted the plight of migrants and refugees, the pontiff also expressed concern over democracy’s retreat globally.
“The European community, torn by nationalist self-interest, rather than being the engine of solidarity, appears at times blocked and uncoordinated,” he said in an address at Greece’s presidential palace on Saturday.
“In the past ideological conflicts prevented the building of bridges between eastern and western Europe; today the issue of migration has led to breaches between south and north as well.”
The Roman Catholic leader, himself the son and grandson of impoverished Italians who moved to Argentina, has made the defence of migrants a cornerstone of his papacy.
In Cyprus, the first stop of a five-day trip, the pope who turns 85 this month and now walks with a discernible limp, 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 on Friday held for migrants coalesced in Nicosia, the war-split island’s 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 as not only the birthplace of democracy but where “man first became conscious of being ‘a political animal’, he expressed fears over the disenchanted being lured by what he called the siren songs of authoritarianism and warned against populists promising popular but unrealistic solutions.
“We cannot avoid noting with concern how today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy,” he said in a speech that steered clear of naming nations or individual leaders. “Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all … it is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”
At the southern extremities of Europe, Cyprus and Greece have toughened their migration policies in response to an influx of people fleeing conflict, persecution and poverty in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
In Greece, the increased securitisation of land and sea frontiers with Turkey has seen a dramatic drop in arrivals. But Cyprus, further east, has recorded a sharp rise in asylum seekers. Officials in the internationally recognised Greek-run south blame the breakaway Turkish-occupied north for allowing migrants to cross the ceasefire line which has divided the country since Ankara invaded in response to a coup aimed at union with Greece, in 1974.
With the EU hardening border controls more generally and allegedly engaging in pushbacks to keep migrants at bay, Pope Francis has served as a moral compass on the issue.
In Nicosia on Friday he said he had a responsibility to both speak for, and tell the truth about the suffering of, refugees.
Earlier on Saturday the Greek Cypriot interior minister Nicos Nouris confirmed that 14 of the 50 asylum seekers to be transferred to Italy would leave the island on 16 December including two Cameroonian students stranded since May in the island’s UN-patrolled buffer zone.
Like Greece and other southern EU member states, Cyprus has complained of being forced to shoulder a disproportionate responsibility in managing mass migration to the bloc. Nouris said the pope’s gesture was more than symbolic. “[It] clearly shows solidarity in practice,” he told reporters following a farewell ceremony for the religious leader. “This is the substantive solidarity that we seek from our European partners.”
On Sunday, in a repeat of his poignant visit to Lesbos in 2016, Francis will fly to the Aegean island to hear the testimonies of migrant men and women who have reached its shores.
Five years ago, he stunned Europe’s political elite by rescuing 12 refugees seemingly doomed to live in the appalling conditions of a vastly overcrowded camp on Lesbos by taking them back with him on his plane.
Asylum seekers have now been settled in a temporary reception centre after a series of fires gutted the squalid facility in Moria.
For a Catholic leader who loves to surprise, it is not impossible that he could repeat the stunt.
“There might be a spontaneous decision,” said Fr George Dagas, parish priest at the Greek capital’s Catholic cathedral. “The Holy Father wants a better future for all these people. Who knows? It might happen again.”