The Pope will visit the Greek island of Lesbos on Saturday 16 April instead of Friday 15 as initially envisaged, in order to show his solidarity to the refugees headed for Europe.
“His Holiness Francis has accepted the invitations of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, His Holiness Bartholomew, and of the President of the Hellenic Republic and will visit Lesbos on 16 April 2016. The Holy Father, His Holiness Bartholomew and His Beatitude Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, will meet the refugees who are being hosted on the island,” the Holy See Press Office said in a statement issued today.
Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi said public events could take place in the local reception centre and the port. The Pope will be greeted by the authorities upon his arrival. A papal flight with a very limited number of seats – around thirty or so, including the Pope’s entourage – will fly to the island for the occasion. Only a small group of reporters will be admitted.
Yesterday, Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano confirmed the news of the Pope’s visit to Lesbos with the heading “Lampedusa dell’Egeo” (Lampedusa of the Aegean), without specifying an exact date. The article read: “Living conditions are increasingly precarious for the thousands of refugees and migrants who have reached the Greek island of Lesbos. The press is finally turning its attention to their situation, a situation to which the political institutions have not yet come up with a concrete response. Greece’s announcement of a visit by Pope Francis and the ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in order to offer a Christian response to the tragedy that is unfolding, has ripped apart the veil of indifference of recent weeks. Particularly after the announcement of the understanding reached between the European Union and Turkey regarding repatriation. The island has become the Lampedusa of the Aegean. Like Lampedusa, which the Pope visited at the start of his pontificate, the island is on the front line of the emergency.”
On its front page, the Holy See daily mentioned the news of recent days, starting with the first refugees “who were returned to Turkey’s coasts on the basis of the pact signed between Brussels and Ankara which came into force on 20 March”. It underlined that “the only choice these people have is: either they apply for asylum or they are sent back to Turkey”. The newspaper recalled the criticisms expressed by the UN High Commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) and Caritas Switzerland with regard to the plan: “The fact that migrants continue arriving on Greece’s coasts is confirmation of the weakness of the EU-Turkey plan. Today, the Turkish coastguard intercepted 60 or so people who were trying to reach the Greek islands from Turkey’s coasts. Those intercepted, including a number of Syrians, were returned and held in the province of Smyrna, waiting to be sent either to reception or expulsion centres.”
Yesterday, the ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople issued a statement underlining the attention with which Bartholomew has “followed the developments and tragic conflicts” in the Middle East in recent months and “the persecution of Christians there”. The Patriarch expressed “his profound concern for the serious plight of the refugees. It was within this spirit that he reached out with a representative to His Holiness Pope Francis in February and by personal letter on March 30th”. “In the context of the interest and shared concern of Religious Leaders as well as the urgent need to assume a common initiative and action to sensitize the international public opinion as well as the appropriate bodies and agencies,” the statement added, “His Holiness Pope Francis, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece will visit the island of Lesbos in the near future in order to meet with and support the refugees there. This measure and initiative of the Religious Leaders will encourage and strengthen the thousands of suffering refugees, while inspiring the implementation of appropriate actions for the protection of the afflicted Christian Communities as well as the proper response to the critical refugee situation.