Pope Francis has hung a cross encircled by a life jacket inside a Vatican building in memory of migrants and refugees who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea.
He also welcomed a group of asylum seekers brought to Italy by the head of the papal charities office, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski.
The transparent cross was hung inside an entrance to the apostolic palace reached from the Belvedere Courtyard – where diplomats and heads of state arrive for audiences with the pope.
“In the Christian tradition the cross is a symbol of suffering and sacrifice but also of redemption and salvation,” Francis said.
This cross, he continued, “presents itself as a challenge to look more carefully and to always seek the truth.”
Pope Francis said the life jacket, which is molded onto the transparent cross, was found in the central Mediterranean Sea on July 3, 2019, and belonged to an unknown migrant who died at sea.
“I decided to expose here this life jacket, ‘crucified’ on this cross, to remind us that we must keep our eyes open, keep our hearts open, to remind everyone of the absolute commitment to save every human life, a moral duty that unites believers and non-believers,” he said.
In his speech, Pope Francis strongly criticized migrant detention centers in Libya, which he called “places of torture and despicable slavery.”
He also called out indifference and laziness toward the plight of migrants, many of whom choose to face “a stormy sea rather than die slowly in Libyan detention camps.” He added: “sloth is a sin.”
He also argued that to block migrant or migrant rescue boats from landing in Europe is not the answer to the immigration crisis, urging “serious efforts” be made toward emptying the detention camps in Libya, which have drawn international attention for human rights abuses.
There is an ongoing “human rights crisis” for refugees and migrants in Libya, according to a 2016 report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Early last month, Italy and the European Union renewed a deal with the UN-backed government in Libya to stem migration to Europe. In the deal, first struck in February 2017, Italy and the EU agreed to finance, equip, and train the Libyan coastguard, which then intercepts boats of migrants in the Mediterranean and forces them to return to Libya.
The deal is controversial, with critics saying it creates a prime environment for human trafficking and because of documented human rights violations on the part of Libya’s government, for which the detention of migrants is “a profitable business model,” according to a leaked EU report from September.
After hanging the migrant cross on the wall, Pope Francis greeted around 40 asylum seekers who arrived in Italy from the Greek island of Lesbos earlier this month.
The asylum seekers are from Afghanistan, Togo, and Cameroon. They will be supported by the Holy See through the Office of Papal Charities and by the Sant’Egidio Community, a lay Catholic movement centered on peace and helping the poor.
The pope said migrants are victims of injustice. “Yes, because it is injustice that forces many migrants to leave their lands. It is injustice that forces them to cross deserts and suffer abuse and torture in detention camps. It is injustice that rejects them and makes them die at sea,” he said.
“It is necessary to denounce and prosecute traffickers who exploit and mistreat migrants,” he said. “Economic interests must be set aside so that at the center there is the person, every person, whose life and dignity are precious in the eyes of God.”
“We must help and save, because we are all responsible for the life of our neighbor, and the Lord will ask us for an account at the time of judgment,” he concluded.