Pope Francis has made an emotional visit to Greece to thank its people for welcoming migrants and meet refugees as the European Union implements a controversial plan to deport them back to Turkey.
Many refugees fell to their knees and wept as Francis approached them at the Moria detention centre on the Greek island of Lesbos. Others chanted “Freedom! Freedom!” as he passed by. Francis bent down as one young girl knelt at his feet sobbing uncontrollably. A woman told the Pope that her husband was in Germany, but that she was stuck with her two sons in Lesbos.
“Refugees are not numbers, they are people who have faces, names stories and need to be treated as such,” Francis tweeted.
Francis’s Alitalia charter touched down at the airport in Lesbos shortly after 10am on Saturday. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met him on the tarmac, along with the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians and the archbishop of Athens, who is the head of the Church of Greece.
During a brief meeting at the airport, Francis thanked Tsipras for the “generosity” shown by the Greek people in welcoming foreigners despite their own economic troubles and called for a response to the migration crisis that respects European and international law, the Vatican said.
Tsipras, for his part, said he was proud of Greece’s response “at a time when some of our partners — even in the name of Christian Europe — were erecting walls and fences to prevent defenceless people from seeking a better life.”
Francis and the two Orthodox leaders, officially divided from Catholics over a 1,000-year schism, then travelled to the main detention centre on Lesbos to greet some 250 refugees stuck there.
The religious leaders had lunch with eight refugees to hear their stories of fleeing war, conflict and poverty and their hopes for a better life in Europe. And then they prayed together, tossing a floral wreath into the sea in memory of those who didn’t make it.
The five-hour visit is meant to show a united Christian response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding.
Hours before Francis arrived, the European border patrol agency Frontex intercepted a dinghy carrying 41 Syrians and Iraqis off the coast of Lesbos. The refugees were detained and brought to shore in the main port of Mytilene.