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The Pope Visited Refugees on a Greek Island and Took Three Families Back to Rome on His Papal Plane

The visit crystallized the Pope's repeated and increasingly urgent pleas to Europe's leaders to remain compassionate in their handling of the refugee crisis.

by Tess Owen
Apr 16 2016, 3:35pm

Pope Francis blesses a child during a visit to the Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, 16 April 2016. (Filippo Montefort/EPA)

Pope Francis visited Moria, a sprawling refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, to deliver a message of hope to the thousands who have been forced to call the camp home after fleeing war and conflict in Syria and beyond.

"I want to tell you, you are not alone," Francis said on Saturday in a speech to the camp's residents. "As people of faith, we wish to join our voices to speak out on your behalf. Do not lose hope."

The visit crystallized the Pope's repeated and increasingly urgent reminder to Europe's leaders to remain compassionate in their handling of the refugee crisis.

Refugees and migrants seeking a better, safer life have recently faced a cascade of border closings throughout Europe, and as a result, some refugee encampments in Greece have taken on an air of permanence. Lesbos, called Mytilini, has become the unexpected epicenter of the refugee crisis since its outset in 2014.

"We have come to call the attention of the world to this grave humanitarian crisis and to plead for its resolution," Francis said during his visit. The pope was joined in his remarks by leaders of Christian Orthodox churches.

Francis symbolically took a small group of people from the Moria camp on his papal plane, back to the vatican.

Related: Pope Francis Says Those Who Deny Migrants Should Ask God for Forgiveness

"The Pope has desired to make a gesture of welcome regarding refugees, accompanying on his plane to Rome three families of refugees from Syria, 12 people in all, including six children," a statement issued by the Vatican said.

The refugees who left the camp with Francis were made homeless during the Syrian civil war after their homes were bombed. The statement added that the Vatican would care for those families.

Many refugees have reached Greek shores after risking their lives crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey. According to the UN refugee agency, more than one million people have arrived in Greece from Turkey since January 2015. Since the beginning of 2016, 728 refugees have drowned attempting to reach Greece. In 2015, 3,771 people died.

Francis' visit to Lesbos also comes as humanitarian organizations accuse European leaders of using refugees as geopolitical bargaining chips. Last month, EU and Turkish ministers reached a deal to settle refugees in Turkey. Ever since, Moria has become somewhat of a holding pen as its residents have been forced to remain there, rather than to be allowed passage into the rest of the EU, as bickering politicians decide their fate.

After the new deal with Turkey was ratified, the Greek coastguard has been actively scooping up refugees and transporting them directly to Moria. Frontex border agency has called on EU member states to step up to the plate and provide personnel to help Greek authorities on Lesbos manage the implementation of the new deal.

As the rest of Europe tightens its borders, Greek authorities and residents have had a tough time dealing with the enormous influx of refugees.

Modern Lesbos was shaped by an earlier refugee crisis, and many of its residents are descended from asylum seekers. In the 1920's, following the Turkish war of Independence, Greek and Turkish officials agreed to a "population exchange." Over one million Greek Orthodox Christians were expelled from Turkey – about 60 percent landed in Lesbos – while 400,000 Muslims living in Greece were sent to Turkey. Lesbos residents cite this recent history of migration for their compassionate response to these newest migrants and refugees, for which they have been collectively nominated for a Nobel peace prize.

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Maria Papergeorgio, who owns a travel agency in Lesbos, told the Guardian that she was still "emotionally shocked" by the desperation which flooded her town. "People were sleeping outside my shop; these people had no water to drink," Papergeorgio said. She added that, from her agency's window, she often saw the coastguard unloading body bags filled with corpses of migrants and refugees who had died crossing the Aegean. "You might feel you were in Syria yourself," she said. "It was like a war zone."

During his visit to the camp, Francis said he admired the Greeks for keeping "open their hearts and doors." "Many ordinary men and women have made available the little they have and shared it with those who lost everything," Francis said. "God will repay this generosity."

But buried in his praise for Greece was a sharp criticism of the rest of the EU. He and other religious leaders pointedly cited a verse from the Gospel of Matthew, in the first book of the New Testament, which says everyone would be judged by their actions.

On Friday, Oxfam issued a statement calling for a moratorium on the plan to deport refugees from Greece to Turkey, until authorities can ensure the process doesn't endanger asylum seekers and allow them to fall through the cracks. "Thousands are being held in squalid detention centers on the Greek Islands," said Farah Karimi, the executive director of Oxfam's branch in the Netherlands. "This is the state of Europe in 2016."

"The returns deal was pushed through to the detriment of these stranded suffering people by the EU, which claims to be a bastion for human rights," Karimi continued. "Shame on the EU for prioritizing detention and deportation over people's rights to safety and dignity."