We entities of the Catholic Church in Spain that work with migrants and refugees – Caritas, CONFER [Spanish Clerical Conference], the Social Sector of the Society of Jesus, and Justice and Peace – welcome with joy the visit made on Saturday 16 April this year by Pope Francis to the Greek island of Lesbos, which is located off the coasts of Turkey and is scene to one of the greatest migration crises of our times.
We appreciate his pastoral sensitivity in the face of a challenge which, in humanitarian and political terms, means taking in hundreds of thousands of people who are attempting to reach the European Union through its eastern border, and his closeness to the circumstances of precariousness and vulnerability experienced by all of them.
“This is a voyage marked by sadness”, announced Pope Francis following his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos during his return flight to Rome, after having witnessed first-hand what he himself has defined as “the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War”.
The last few months have seen Lesbos locked in the centre of an incessant influx of people – at least one million in 2015 – who are coming to Greece in search of a future of security, freedom, dignity and human rights, even at the cost of putting their own lives at risk. Since the beginning of the year, at least 300 migrants and refugees have lost their lives in the waters of the Aegean.
The Pope’s journey to Lesbos, which he made alongside the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, and the Archbishop of Athens and Greece Ieronymos II, happened a few days after the agreement between the European Union and Turkey had entered into force, allowing any migrant who reaches the Greek islands after 20 March to be detained and returned to Turkey, unless they manage to be recognised as a refugee in Greece.
Over the past few weeks, we at Caritas, CONFER, the Social Sector of the Society of Jesus, and Justice and Peace, together with the Bishop’s Commission on Migrations of the EEC, have vehemently and repeatedly denounced the EU-Turkey Agreement, as we consider it to be “inhumane, dehumanising, discriminatory and restrictive”.
Hence the enormous relevance that Pope Francis’ visit to Lesbos has for our organisations, whereby the Pope wanted to deliver to the whole of Europe an unequivocal message of closeness and solidarity with refugees and migrants, to whom he said as soon as he reached Greek soil: “I want to tell you that you are not alone. I have come here with my brothers, Patriarch Bartholomew and Archbishop Ieronymos, simply to be with you and to hear your stories. We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution. As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and indeed desperate need, and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity”.
“This is the message I want to leave with you today: Do not lose hope!”, he announced during his visit to the refugee camp in Moira, where thousands of migrants and refugees are living in overcrowded conditions in the hope of being accepted into the EU. There he reminded us that “the greatest gift we can offer one another is love: a merciful look, a readiness to listen and understand, a word of encouragement, a prayer. May you share this gift with one another. We Christians love to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, a foreigner who saw a man in need and immediately stopped to help. For us, it is a story about God’s mercy which is meant for everyone, for God is the All-Merciful. It is also a summons to show that same mercy to those in need. May all our brothers and sisters on this continent, like the Good Samaritan, come to your aid in the spirit of fraternity, solidarity and respect for human dignity that has distinguished its long history”.
There in Moira, Pope Francis – flanked by Bartholomew and Ieronymos – read out their joint declaration in which all three spiritual leaders affirmed their will to “fulfil the Churches’ mission of service to the world, by defending the fundamental human rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, and the many marginalised people in our societies”.
They announced that, “Our meeting today is meant to help bring courage and hope to those seeking refuge and to all those who welcome and assist them. We urge the international community to make the protection of human lives a priority and, at every level, to support inclusive policies which extend to all religious communities. The terrible situation of all those affected by the present humanitarian crisis, including so many of our Christian brothers and sisters, calls for our constant prayer”.
Another moment of special significance occurred during the visit of the three spiritual leaders to the memorial erected in memory of those who have lost their lives at sea. “Wake us from the slumber of indifference”, exclaimed Pope Francis during his prayer. “Open our eyes to their suffering and free us from the insensitivity born of comfort and self-centeredness”, he added.
For our entities, it is particularly meaningful that he launched a plea to the whole of the European Union during his meeting with the population and Catholic community of Lesbos at the Coast Guard station. Pope Francis underlined that, “We must never forget that migrants, rather than simply being a statistic, are first of all people, faces, names and individual stories. Europe is the homeland of human rights, and whoever sets foot on European soil ought to sense this”.
On his return to Italy – and in order to sign off a visit full of gestures in style – Pope Francis brought a group of 12 Syrians back with him on board the papal plane, half of whom are children, who were chosen by a draw. “It’s a drop in the ocean”, said Bergoglio, “but after this drop, the ocean will never be the same again… It’s a small gesture. But these are the small gestures that all men and women must do to give a hand to those in need”.