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Pope Francis held the hand of a man during a visit with refugees at the government-run Reception and Identification Center in Mytilene, Greece, Dec. 5.
Pope Francis held the hand of a man during a visit with refugees at the government-run Reception and Identification Center in Mytilene, Greece, Dec. 5.
Photo Credit: Paul Haring | Catholic News Service

Attack causes of migration, not those forced to flee, pope says on Lesbos

On visit to Greece, Pope Francis also asked pardon for sins that drove Catholic, Orthodox apart

MYTILENE, Greece -- Standing in a tent on the shore, Pope Francis said the Mediterranean Sea, "the cradle of so many civilizations, now looks like a mirror of death."

He was speaking Dec. 5 to Greek and U.N. officials, but especially residents at the Mavrovouni refugee camp, formally called the Reception and Identification Center. But he also was speaking to the nations of the European Union and to governments around the world.

About 2,200 people, including minors who made their journey across the sea without a parent or other adult, call Mavrovouni home. They live in orderly rows of tents and small pre-fab shelters on the Greek island of Lesbos outside of Mytilene. The center replaced the infamous Moira camp after a fire in 2020.

The Greek government now moves refugees and asylum-seekers throughout the country, taking pressure -- and media attention -- off Lesbos and other islands close to Turkey. The Ministry of Migration and Asylum said that at the end of October, 4,352 migrants and refugees were living on Lesbos compared to the 18,872 who were there in October 2020.

While the government's idea is that asylum-seekers will spend only a few months in camps on Lesbos before moving to an apartment or being transferred to the mainland, many at Mavrovouni told reporters accompanying the pope that they had been there for years.

Mohammadi Zagul, a 34-year-old mother of five from Afghanistan, said she and her family have been on Lesbos for two years. They want to leave the camp and start a real life, she said, but it does not really matter in what country.

Christian Tango Mukalya, a 30-year-old Congolese Catholic who arrived on Lesbos more than a year ago with two of his three small children, told Pope Francis that he and the others want only "a safe place in Europe for the future of our families."

"I am a pilgrim," he said, "an asylum-seeker in search of a safe refuge" after "persecution and death threats in my country of origin."

Visiting the camp on a Sunday morning, Pope Francis used verbs from the Advent Scripture readings to pray that God would "rouse" and "shake" and "awaken" the consciences of everyone to respond to the desperate plight of migrants and refugees in Greece and around the world.

With Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou in attendance, the pope once again called the European community to task for insisting countries where migrants arrive enforce European Union immigration policies but doing little to help those countries manage the migration flows.

"In Europe there are those who persist in treating the problem as a matter that does not concern them," the pope said. "How many conditions exist that are unworthy of human beings! How many hotspots where migrants and refugees live in borderline conditions, without glimpsing solutions on the horizon!"

And yet, he said, the EU "is constantly promoting" respect for human rights worldwide and insisting to others that "the dignity of each person ought to come before all else."

A professed belief in human dignity, he said, must spur nations to work together to come up with intelligent, comprehensive policies to meet the immediate needs of those who feel forced to flee their homelands and to help them find a home where they and their families can start again.

"It is easy to stir up public opinion by instilling fear of others," Pope Francis said. "Yet why do we fail to speak with equal vehemence about the exploitation of the poor, about seldom-mentioned but often well-financed wars, about economic agreements where the people have to pay, about covert deals to traffic in arms, favoring the proliferation of the arms trade?"

The causes of migration "should be attacked, not the poor people who pay the consequences and are even used for political propaganda," he insisted.

Christians have a special obligation to reject political rhetoric that paints migrants as a threat, he said. "God loves us as his children; he wants us to be brothers and sisters. Instead, he is offended when we despise the men and women created in his image, leaving them at the mercy of the waves, in the wash of indifference, justified at times even in the name of supposedly Christian values."

With a gentle breeze only slightly rippling the water behind him, Pope Francis urged everyone -- government leaders and individual citizens -- to look at the faces of the migrant children.

"May we find the courage to feel ashamed in their presence; in their innocence, they are our future," he said. "They challenge our consciences and ask us: 'What kind of world do you want to give us?'"

Pope asks pardon for sins that drove Catholic, Orthodox apart

ATHENS, Greece -- Like St. John Paul II before him, Pope Francis apologized to members of the Orthodox Church of Greece for the ways Catholics over the centuries had offended them, and he told Catholic leaders that they must embrace their minority status with humility.

"Here, today, I feel the need to ask anew for the forgiveness of God and of our brothers and sisters for the mistakes committed by many Catholics," Pope Francis told Orthodox Archbishop Ieronymos II of Athens and all Greece.

Under heavy gray skies, Pope Francis made his way Dec. 4 from the Vatican nunciature to the archbishop's office in Athens' old city. He was driven to the nearby Catholic Cathedral Basilica of St. Dionysius the Areopagite only after his meeting with Archbishop Ieronymos, the spiritual leader of the majority of Greek Christians.

While Catholics and Orthodox have the same roots in the preaching of St. Paul and the teaching of the early Church theologians and first ecumenical councils, "tragically, in later times we grew apart," the pope said.

"Worldly concerns poisoned us, weeds of suspicion increased our distance and we ceased to nurture communion," Pope Francis said. "Shamefully -- I acknowledge this for the Catholic Church -- actions and decisions that had little or nothing to do with Jesus and the Gospel -- but were instead marked by a thirst for advantage and power -- gravely weakened our communion."

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