By CINDY WOODEN, Catholic News Service | Published April 28, 2016
MYTILENE, Greece (CNS)—Pope Francis’ five-hour visit to Greece ended with him offering safe passage to Italy to 12 Syrian Muslims, half under the age of 18.
The Vatican had kept secret the pope’s plan to invite the members of three Syrian families to fly back to Rome with him April 16. It was confirmed only as the 12 were boarding the papal plane.
The Vatican Secretariat of State made formal arrangements with the governments of Italy and Greece to obtain the legal permits needed for the refugees to live in Italy, a Vatican statement said. The Vatican will assume financial responsibility for the families, who will be assisted by the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio.
All 12 had arrived in Greece prior to March 20, the date a European Union agreement with Turkey went into effect for returning most asylum seekers to Turkey. The children are between the ages of 2 and 17.
After spending the morning with desperate refugees interned in a camp in Greece, Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders turned their attention and prayers to the sea, the final burial place of hundreds who died trying to get to Europe. Since January, the International Organization for Migration said, more than 150,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Greece and 366 people died attempting crossing the Aegean Sea.
“Though many of their graves bear no name, to you each one is known, loved and cherished,” Pope Francis prayed to God April 16 in Mytilene, a city on Lesbos, the island on which more than half the refugees have landed.
“Wake us from the slumber of indifference,” the pope prayed, “open our eyes to their suffering and free us from the insensitivity born of world comfort and self-centeredness.”
Greek island shows “the heart of humanity continues to beat”
Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece stood alongside Pope Francis on the waterfront at the Mytilene harbor. They, too, offered prayers for those who have died and joined the pope in blessing laurel wreaths that were tossed into the sea.
Recognizing the generosity and sacrifice of the Greek government and Greek people, who had tried to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees despite an ongoing economic crisis, the pope told them, “You are guardians of humanity for you care with tenderness for the body of Christ, who suffers in the least of his brothers and sisters, the hungry and the stranger, whom you have welcomed.”
He praised the people of Lesbos for showing that “in these lands, the cradle of civilization, the heart of humanity continues to beat; a humanity that before all else recognizes others as brothers and sisters, a humanity that wants to build bridges and recoils from the idea of putting up walls to make us feel safer. In reality, barriers create divisions instead of promoting the true progress of peoples, and divisions sooner or later lead to confrontations.”