Pope Flies 12 Syrian Refugees to Vatican in Potent Symbol for EU

  • Europe in direst humanitarian crisis since WWII, pontiff says
  • Visit with patriarch to focus on `critical' plight of refugees

Pope Francis made an emotional visit to the Greek island of Lesbos Saturday, plucking 12 Syrian refugees to take back to Rome with him and draw attention to what he called Europe’s most serious humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.

Francis, who has made migration a defining issue of his papacy, visited a refugee center as he appealed to the international community to deal with the migrants crisis as a humanitarian catastrophe.

The pope said there was “reason to weep” on his visit to the refugees, and he brushed aside any political reasons for his invitation to have three families from Syria, 12 people including six children, accompany him on the flight home.

“It is a purely humanitarian thing,” he told reporters on his chartered plane.

The Vatican will take financial responsibility for the families and an organization of volunteers, Comunità di Sant’Egidio, will initially host the groups, according to a statement.

During the five-hour visit to Lesbos, the pontiff visited a refugee center with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church, and was welcomed by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. He also criticized the use of walls to keep migrants out.

Pope Francis greets migrants on Lesbos on April 16.

Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

“In reality, barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to conflicts,” Francis said in a speech at the port of Lesbos.

The visit was made 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.

’Sad Trip’

As he began the journey to Greece, the pope told reporters on his flight that the trip is marked by sadness. "This is important. It is a sad trip," he said.

"Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names, stories and need to be treated as such," the pontiff said through his Twitter account.

The theme of a meeting between Pope Francis and Tsipras was the refugee and migration crisis and specifically the situation on the island, according to a statement by Father Federico Lombardi, the pope’s spokesman.

"During the meeting it was underlined that the refugee crisis is a European and international issue calling for a comprehensive response that respects European and international law," Lombardi said.

In a joint statement with the patriarch and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens, Francis said political leaders should employ "every means" to ensure that individuals can remain in their countries.

"A broader international consensus and an assistance program are urgently needed to uphold the rule of law, to defend fundamental human rights in this unsustainable situation," he said.

A Vatican official 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.

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.

Trump Clash

Francis has clashed with U.S. 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 called the 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?”

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