- Francis expected to travel to Lesbos as soon as next week
- Visit with Patriarch to focus on `critical' plight of refugees
Pope Francis, who has made migration a defining issue of his papacy, is due to visit the Greek island of Lesbos as early as next week in a trip that will serve as an implicit rebuke to European leaders over their refugees policy.
Francis will travel “soon” to the island with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, the patriarchate said on its website Wednesday. The aim, it said, was to encourage the refugees there and inspire “the proper response to the critical refugee situation.’
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will accompany the religious leaders, according to a Greek government official who spoke on condition of anonymity as the trip hasn’t been officially announced by the Vatican. Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement that the visit was “possible,” adding decisions on the date and the destination had not yet been taken.
The visit, once confirmed, will come days after migrants to Greece started being sent back to Turkey under a European Union agreement that has been criticized by the Vatican and denounced by human rights groups as impractical and legally suspect. Lesbos has become a repository for migrants seeking a better life in the EU: there were 3,560 refugees on the island as of Wednesday morning with more arriving each day, according to a daily tally issued by the Greek authorities.
A Vatican official who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to comment publicly said that migration was clearly a theme to which the Argentine-born Pope -- the son of an Italian immigrant -- wants to continue to draw attention.
Such a visit was a very delicate diplomatic dance, the official said, given the involvement of Greece, Turkey and the Orthodox Church. Asked what the Pope was likely to say about European leaders’ response to the crisis, the official said Francis would no doubt signal he was unhappy with it.
“Popes generally aren’t in the business of criticizing individual countries but everything Francis says and does in Greece will be an implicit criticism of political failure,” papal biographer Austen Ivereigh said in a telephone interview. “He wants to persuade the world to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis rather than an immigration issue.”
Soon after his election in March 2013, Francis chose the island of Lampedusa south of Sicily -- point of arrival for many migrants crossing the central Mediterranean -- for his first trip outside Rome.
Francis has clashed with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump over migration, saying someone like Trump “who thinks only about building walls, wherever it is, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” Trump branded the Pope’s comment “disgraceful.”
The Vatican has made no secret of its hostility to the EU deal to send migrants back to Turkey from Greece that came into operation Monday. Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio, who heads the pontifical council for migrants, said in an interview with Vatican Radio that the migrants concerned “are people, not goods.”
“It’s refusing these people the right to emigrate: they want, for example, to go to Germany and they find themselves in Turkey,” Veglio said. “And with what guarantees?”