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Pope’s trip to Greece bridges migrant and religious divide

Aris Messinis, AFP | Pope Francis (L) speaks with Greek Archbishop Ieronymos II during their visit to the Moria detention center in Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos, on April 16, 2016.

Pope Francis joined leaders of the Orthodox Church during a landmark visit to Greece on Saturday forging an unprecedented unity between Western and Eastern Christians and urging a ‘common humanity’ towards migrants.

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The Pontiff’s visit to the Greek island of Lesbos had been billed as primarily awareness raising, intended as “strictly humanitarian and ecumenical, not political”. It has nevertheless, for the first time, injected the voice of the world’s Christian community – both the Western and Eastern traditions - into the politically charged debate on Europe’s migrant crisis.

"He’s [Pope] challenging global leaders. He’s joining in a global conversation, he’s seeking to take a political stance or bring Chiristian thought to the public domain,” Anthony O’Mahony says, Reader in Theology and the History of Christianity at Heythrop College University of London.

“But he’s political in a small 'p' way.”

Orthodox Patriach and spiritual leader Bartholomew I, head of the Church of Greece Archbishop Ieronymos II and Pope Francis all signed a joint declaration calling on political leaders “to employ every means to ensure that individuals and communities, including Christians, remain in their homelands and enjoy the fundamental right to live in peace and security.”

But in what could be considered his strongest condemnation yet of Europe’s handling of the migrant situation, the Pope ended his trip to Lesbos by taking 12 Syrian Muslim refugees back to Vatican City with him.

In a statement, the Vatican said Francis wanted to “make a gesture of welcome” to the refugees.

Earlier in the day at the Moria refugee camp, now a detention centre, the three religious leaders along with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met and talked with migrants and refugees.

Some wept as they met the Pope, others brandished makeshift banners with slogans such as "Pope you are our hope," ''please save Yazidi people," ''we are also human," and "Welcome Pope Francis".

During a prayer ceremony at the island’s port capital, Mytilene, Francis also thanked the people of Greece for showing solidarity and humanity towards the world’s most desperate.

Francis’ trip follows the start of a controversial European Union-Turkey deal under which any migrant arriving on Greek islands after April 4 will be detained and deported unless they successfully apply for asylum in Greece. The deal states that for every migrant deported from Greece, a Syrian will be relocated to Europe from Turkey.

A defender of refugees

It also caps off a number of past rhetorical flourishes made by the Pope criticising Europe for its “anaesthetised conscience” and for its “globalisation of indifference” comments that have defined him as a staunch defender of migrants.

He refuses to use the term migrant choosing the term refugee instead - a direct contravention of the EU’s distinction between those fleeing conflict and those seeking better economic conditions in Europe.

Francis said he understands European concerns about the large numbers of migrants entering the continent but has insisted that the world look upon them as human beings with “faces, names and stories”.

Echoing the sentiments of the Pope on Saturday, Bartholomew I said that the segregation between economic and non-economic migrants is an offence to God.

However their voices still contrast with those that exist north of the Greek border, across Europe’s predominantly Christian countries. There, a domino effect of border closures and blockades in Macedonia, Hungary and Austria, has been arbitrarily imposed to prevent the free passage of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

Christians in the Middle East

Saturday’s event is highly symbolic on a solely religious level too. It represents a centuries old thawing of the rift between the eastern and western Christian churches - the two strands brought together over their common concern for the plight of Europe’s migrants.

O’Mahony agrees that Saturday’s bridging of the religious gap between catholic and orthodox traditions is a sign of the times where global issues are necessitating global voices.

Precipitating the need for a more unified Christian message is the conflict in Syria where Christians are increasingly persecuted.

 

“The future of Christianity in the Middle East is a deep concern,” O’Mahony says.
“Syria is still the largest body of Orthodox believers in the Middle East and up to 40 percent have fled”.

Meanwhile Lesbos, remains on the frontline of Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.

And whilst the conflict in Syria continues and other countries across the developing world struggle with political instability and economic disparity, the numbers are unlikely to decrease soon.

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